In high school I thrived – not necessarily because I was talented but because I was idiotically, incurably arrogant. That arrogance is what got my first play produced. In college my arrogance began to falter around so many talented people. But I still had so damn much of it I labored through and stayed creatively afloat.
Then came life after college. I moved to a rather isolated town known more for engineering than the arts. I took an ill-fitting job. I gained weight because the town and the job were both reminders of the glory of whiskey. I became surrounded by people who didn’t view me as a writer or a performer. I lost any sense of competition with my peers. And somewhere in there, I lost my arrogance, too.
I’ve slowly been rebuilding since then, although the older me would rather replace young, stupid arrogance with self-confidence. Arrogance becomes childishly self-defensive when criticized. Self-confidence is just a nudging of truth that grows slowly over time to help you accomplish your goals.
I don’t want to suggest most writers have self-confidence when they start out. In fact, the best writers I know are great partially because of weird childhoods, traumatic events, or years of awkwardness that make them doubt themselves most, if not all, of the time.
But I will say this: without a little spark of self-confidence – enough to turn off the bad voices when they come – you won’t get where you want to go creatively.
Last week, I mentioned a story idea to a friend of mine. He told me, “You really like derivative work. You know, taking ideas people have already done and just doing them over again.” A few years ago that statement would have crushed me, but in this case I bounced back quickly and made a joke of it. My reaction got me thinking about what’s made me thicker-skinned over the last few years, and I came up with a few things. I figure they might be helpful to you, too.
1. Surround Yourself with the Right People
I’m not friends with many playwrights. We meet every few weeks, go over ideas, critique each other; but our work is too close for comfort. My closest friends are graphic designers, photographers, painters, actors, essayists, and novelists. We encourage each other without competition.
I look for people who bring out the best in me as an artist; and I make it my goal to bring out the best in them and learn about their craft. Encouraging other artists helps me tremendously because I start to believe the words coming out of my mouth.
2. Submit Your Work
Over and over again I hear people talking about how if you want to be a writer, you need to read. The second most popular advice is obviously to write. But I’ll throw in there that, for building up your self-confidence, submission is key. Writing like mad in your bedroom isn’t ultimately going to build any self-confidence. Eventually you’ll start to feel like a fraud, because you’re not a writer if no one ever reads your work.
Submit your work for critique to a few people you trust. Then edit it and submit the results to five places at a time. Then five more. Then five more. Eventually someone bites, and you get to have a reading. One of my worst plays got a reading in NYC last fall. And it only happened because I submitted the hell out of it. I’m not sure how this transfers to other creative work, but for writers it makes a big difference.
(Q: If you work in other creative arts, what’s the equivalent of this for you?)
3. Sacrifice to the Gods
After all of the above, here’s the real secret: My real goal is not self-confidence at all. It’s confidence that over time, something greater than me will work through me to get the words on the page. I don’t really see how truly creative people can deny spirituality, since every time I feel a creative rush it’s like a wave passing through.
Elizabeth Gilbert discusses this in her now-famous talk on creativity. If we want to be confident without the arrogance, we have to rely on something outside of ourselves. That takes the pressure off when our best work is still poor; and it prevents narcissism when we succeed.
I don’t mean get religious. Sadly, I’ve seen religion crush creativity many times. Being open to spiritual guidance in your creative life isn’t religious work. It can mean lighting candles for Shabbat or singing in church, but only when it’s not on a human being’s terms. Because while spirituality can be collective, creativity is personal. You may be obligated to say things your religion doesn’t approve of, but that doesn’t negate your work’s spiritual roots. In fact, it just might prove them.
I hope some of that’s helpful. I’d be curious to know:
What are some ways you maintain the confidence to keep motivated in your creative life?
(Photo by Sanja Gjenero)