The Art of Fiction:
Self-Confidence and the Writing Life!
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
"Most writers (to paraphrase Thoreau) live lives of quiet desperation . . ." —Lenard-Cook
Something I read a few days ago got me thinking about writers and self-confidence. On the one hand, we writers have to be far more self-assured than those who work in fields with regular assessments, or even those who work with others who remind them of their worth. Most writers (to paraphrase Thoreau) live lives of quiet desperation, working mostly on our own until we send something out into the larger world, only to (far too often) get a pre-printed piece of paper back a few months later, telling us our labor of love is not what that world is looking for.
And yet, what do we do? We send it out again. And again. The percentages against us are staggering. Even a small literary magazine, one with, say, a circulation of 500, will accept only a small number of the manuscripts it receives. And a well-known venue like The New Yorker publishes something received "across the transom" so seldom that the eventuality makes publishing headlines for its very egregiousness.
"There are several lessons here, one about the importance of patience, another about the importance of revision and rewriting . . ." —Lenard-Cook
I Give Up
In the early 1990s, I sent out numerous short stories to magazine after magazine. I did my homework, reading the magazines first to determine each editor's particular sensibility. But, although I did have a few successes, by and large most of the stories came back with those form rejections (or worse, I realize in retrospect, "ink" – if they liked it, I always wondered, why didn't they buy it?).
By 1995, I was sick of that sinking feeling I knew far too well, the one I got whenever I opened my mailbox to find an SASE inside, and I stopped sending out stories. I stopped writing them, too, focusing instead on novels and commissioned nonfiction books for the next five years. It wasn't until I saw a notice for a contest for New Mexico writers that I got a novel out of the closet, revised it extensively, took a deep breath, and sent it off. That novel was Dissonance and it won that contest, the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, and went on to be published by the University of New Mexico Press.
There are several lessons here, one about the importance of patience, another about the importance of revision and rewriting (which regular readers know is one of my favorite topics). But most important is what it says about a writer's self-confidence. Every time we think we can't set ourselves up for rejection yet again, we do. And if we've done the work, the hard work of editing and cutting and pasting and saying goodbye to the words we love best, ultimately, our self-confidence will be rewarded.
"I set my bar high because I had a great deal of confidence in that story, and sent it to a literary magazine . . ." —Lenard-Cook
I Try Again
Recently I got those old short stories out of the closet (yes, that same closet). I read each one, pen in hand, and found that some (including some of those published) were dreadful. Others, though, were intriguing. They weren't, to my mind, remotely ready to send out. But something about them recaptured my interest, and I began to rewrite them, one at a time. And I do mean "rewrite": Often the new stories' only commonality with the old is the title or a line or two.
When the first of those retooled stories was ready, I considered something I hadn't in years – sending it to an editor across the transom. I have connections with a number of editors now, but that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted validation from someone who'd never heard of me or my work. I set my bar high because I had a great deal of confidence in that story, and sent it to a literary magazine for which I've long had a great deal of respect. A part of me knew I was setting myself up for disappointment, but after ten years of not sending out stories, I felt I could shoulder the risk. To my surprise and joy, The Southwest Review bought that story.
"We write because we have to. We write because we have something to say. We write because if we didn't, we'd wonder if we really existed at all." —Lenard-Cook
I Give Up
And yet, the next day (or the day after that), my confidence level plummeted back to zero. Yes, it happens to me, too. And I'd venture to say that it probably happens to Amy Tan and Sue Miller and Alice Munro, too (well, maybe not Alice Munro). Writers – no, let's expand our equation to include all artists – have no middle ground when it comes to self-confidence. We're either cocky as all get-out or certain we're not worth scrubbing the pots with – and often, both at the same time.
I Try Again
So why do we do it? You've heard the usual answers: We write because we have to. We write because we have something to say. We write because if we didn't, we'd wonder if we really existed at all. But this self-confidence thing, and its lack, suggests there's more to it than even all those important reasons. I'd say we write because we believe, and because we don't. It's not only part of being a writer; it's part of being human. We can't help but try, try again. It's an up-and-down life. I wouldn't trade it for all the ink and paper in New York. Would you?
About Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.