First of all, I think what holds me back the most as a writer is my lack of confidence. Confidence is everything. This summer, I decided to analyze the 44 stories selected by Richard Ford for the 2010 American Short Story collection to see if there was anything quantifiable that they all had in common. I compared how many of the stories were written in first person versus second and third; I even went so far as to scrutinize sentence lengths. I stopped making spreadsheet entries at story number 32 (“A Romantic Weekend” by Mary Gaitskill -- you should read it) because I realized by that point the only thing all these successful stories had in common was first paragraphs that showed authorial confidence evidenced by risk-taking sentences.
We’ve all read overly-confident writing that is not great. Beautiful writing is obviously not all about confidence. But I do think that if you’re going to spend those million-or-so hours wrestling with your subconsciousness to pull out the exact right sentence that you need, first, to believe on a deep, unfakeable level that people want to hear, or even should hear, what you have to say.
This is how I talk myself into writing a story for workshop when I’m starting to think I’m just a bore and my characters are awkward and people are going to groan when they see my story is 24 pages long: I remind myself that people like me in real life and enjoy my company. I’m the kind of person you can spend a day with and not get too tired of (of course, this is in part because I’m quiet, but, wait, I’m trying to be confident...) I remind myself that I’d spend a day with myself. I’d date myself. I’d talk with me at a party. I really would. So then I think: whatever I write, I’m just letting people into my company, but on the deepest level, and maybe that’s where people (let’s say introverted bookish types) might want to stay for a while.
So that’s about as confident as I get. Other times I want to do anything but write because I’m sick and tired of my own thoughts and emotions. I walk around feeling shitty about myself until I start writing, and then oftentimes a miracle happens and I’m interested in myself again and delighted with what I’ve written. The words are perfectly me! Then I read them again, and my confidence plummets. I’m humiliated. I’m a fraud and delusional and I need to start doing something useful with my life, like building relationships that are life-giving and real, instead of gazing inward all day.
I don’t know! I don’t have the answers! But the best writers in my workshops, the Best American voices, those we have access to on bookshelves or who we read in literature courses, have voices that ring true because the authors, even in their introverted, shy ways, like the sound of their own voices and don’t want to sound like anyone else. You can just tell.
(Alana Trumpy ran off to Yellowstone right after submitting this story, so I wrote this bio on her behalf.) Alana Trumpy is currently enrolled in the MFA for Creative Writing (fiction stream) at the University of Montana. In 2013, she won a prestigious grant from the Ontario Arts Council for her work in progress, which, of course, she has never let me read. You can read an interview with Alana in Niche Magazine here. I'll be posting my final thoughts on confidence soon, so stay tuned.