Why you shouldn't believe in yourself.

“Believe in yourself.” Common — even ubiquitous — advice for writers. I think it’s bad advice. Terrible advice. Destructive advice.

Of course, some measure of hubris is mandatory for any writer. You have to be able to assume that people will be wanting to read your stuff (or at least be able to not care whether they do). More to the point, you have to be able to detach yourself from outcomes and just do your art. But I don’t know too many writers who are able to do that flawlessly, utterly, all the time. Most of us are heaving, hot, viscous messes of doubt and despair. But how can we keep going in the face of our profound certainty that it’s all no use?

I was having one of these Desolate Moments in the Great Writer Desert (“But how do I know I don’t suck?”), and Lee Battersby, one of my writing mentors, ran down a list of things I’d accomplished so far. When lined up like that, they were a bit of a revelation. Since then, whenever I’ve managed to get myself lost in the Great Writer Desert again, I do what Lee did: I gather evidence. I build a case, like any good academic or lawyer, that supports the thesis statement: I am a good writer. Evidence can include (in order of the age I personally observed it in my own writing journey): good grades in creative writing at school; genuine support from intelligently critical friends; acceptance into writing workshops; acceptances by small markets; acceptances by larger markets; success in teaching writing; acceptances by larger markets yet; strangers liking one’s writer page on Facebook; favorable reviews; selling a novel. EVIDENCE.

It’s evidence that gives you a reason to keep going. Not belief. Not faith. If faith is part of how you approach the world, as it is for me, by all means, have faith in the larger realities that permeate your writing and your life. But don’t make faith do a job it’s not designed to do. Faith can give you a reason to write. It won’t give you any information at all about whether you suck. Only evidence will do that.

The hitch is, evidence does not appear ab nihilo. You have to create opportunities for evidence to accrete. That means putting yourself out there for absolutely everything. Here’s a partial list of the writing risks I’ve taken over the years:
  • Sitting at markets with a “Words While U Shop” booth (which I’m doing right this second; see image below).
  • Applying for the Cafe Poet program with Australian Poetry.
  • Writing and producing a 10-minute play in 24 hours*.
  • NaNoWriMo.
  • Applying for the Clarion South workshop.
  • Giving readings and presentations and being on panels at conventions.
  • Learning to write and perform in the slam style and — terrifyingly — performing at the home of slam, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, in front of the person who invented slam, Marc Kelly Smith.
  • Applying for a Ph.D. in creative writing.
  • Submitting stories. Submitting more stories. Submitting them again. And again. And again.
  • Approaching schools, community-education organizations, and writers’ centers about teaching writing.
  • Starting the Wollongong Slam, now called Enough Said and run by a wonderful collective of brave poets.
  • Letting intelligent people who will not patronize me or comfort me critique my writing.
  • Submitting more stories, again and again.
  • Saying yes when asked to write poems for a performance of baroque opera.
  • Saying yes when asked to write an opera libretto.
  • Saying yes when asked to write a scenario for a ballet.
  • Saying yes.
  • Saying yes.
  • Saying yes.
Okay, sure, sometimes it feels like standing in front of a charging rhino. But really, is any of this stuff going to actually, as opposed to symbolically, kill you? I need to bring to your attention that NONE of these things actually required any pre-existing approval. Nobody is stopping you from applying for things, submitting things, starting things, signing up for things, sending things out, inviting people to play with words with you. And okay, most of the things I’ve risked have disappeared like smoke on the wind – for every item on this list, there are a dozen more that never came to anything. So? Only risk — showing up, signing up, sending out, standing up — generates evidence. So what are you waiting for? Are you tormented by uncertainty? Do you lie awake at night wondering if you suck? There is only one way to fix it: EVIDENCE. Now go get some.

Me and the famous Poet-Tree at the Makers and Thinkers Market in Brunswick, Melbourne, whereat I wrote this post.

*If you’ve never done 24-hour theatre, I strongly, strongly recommend it. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. It helped that I had a fabulous team of actors – do you have some actor or actor-wannabe friends? Get a group together and start googling “24-hour theatre” in your city or town. Don’t find any? START AN EVENT YOURSELF.



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