Monday, June 22, 2009

What I Learned From Roxana Robinson

The novelist and short-story writer Roxana Robinson (whose stories I've read and admired) gave a reading at the bookstore where I work last Saturday. I'm not big on readings unless the reader is a friend of mine -- I usually just prefer to read with my eyes. The excerpt she read from her novel, Cost, about a family dealing with a heroin-addicted son, was good enough to make me to buy the book, but it was the Q & A session that really got me thinking.

Robinson said a lot of smart things about the writing process. She talked about how she writes short stories toward a specific moment, writes novels differently. She writes "character-driven" novels, and doesn't make an outline when she starts writing. She lets the characters go where they need to go. Though she didn't say this, I thought it: It takes guts to follow characters and let that be your novel. Because, yeah, you can call it "characters" but it's really you, your subconscious, that you're following. And if you're like me, you second guess everything that pours automatically out of your mind. You might even second guess it to death. Writing without a map requires an awful lot of faith that your ideas are good enough, though this faith might be an automatic thing.

Then it struck me that, yeah, Roxana Robinson does have guts. In fact, she might be one of the most poised and confident people I've ever met. She said everything with strength and certainty, no wavering, no dithering. She was actually terrifyingly confident. At least she came off that way. But it's hard to fake.

It made me think of a number of other women writers I know, good ones, and the fact that they, too, are noticeably confident. It's usual for American women to be somewhat self-effacing -- I know I can be -- but the really good American women writers I know, generally, are not. Yeah, I know, this goes for men, too. But extraordinary confidence is more usual, though far from universal, in men. Like a necktie, you hardly notice it on a man, though you do on a woman.

Confidence is more than just the ability to self-promote, though that doesn't hurt. Confidence enables work. It enables you to trust all the thousand instinctive decisions you have to make when you pull a character out of your unconscious, wind him up, and let him go.

So here's the question: Where does it come from? How does a person acquire the almost unearthly confidence required to persist in this business?

13 comments:

Diana Holquist said...

Alcohol?

But seriously, I think that extreme confidence is usually a facade. Talking about writing is easy. It's the doing that's so so hard. I have no clue who RR is, but I just glanced at her website--three novels in over 20 years (and who knows how long it took her to write the first one). This to me is more of an indication of someone's confidence--how long it takes to write. It's the terrifically prolific writers that I consider truly fearless...

...and is this a good thing?

jon said...

There are all kinds of confidence. She may be a very confident reader, but we'll never know what she goes through to get there. And even that cconfidence can be a con game. People tell me I'm a very confident reader, even when I feel terror. I feel confident in my work however. I feel no confidence in marketing and promotion. The confidence comes from successfully doing things. It feeds back. 'Oh, I can do that.' then you do it more confidently. Of course, the flip side is arrogance.

rmellis said...

Yeah, Diana & Jon, I'm already kind of mentally disowning this post -- I know in my case that my "self-effacing" crap is a total fraud, designed to try and hide my horrendous arrogance. The confidence, strength, and certainty that some people project is probably a very hard-won form of self-management, and reveals nothing about the interior....

Better post tonight to push this post down...

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, R. In particular, I loved the idea of letting characters take you along in the writing process. That is a type of confidence in oneself of course. By imagining that Robinson is confident, you allow yourself to imagine just what that state might be like.

-Nancy

Gary said...

I think that in this arena the obvious is sometimes true: that self-confidence and self-belief can spring from strength (and self-knowledge of that strength) and not just from clever presentation: so for a writer this would mean talent, self-knowledge of one's own talent, and the ability to draw on the resources gleaned from years of careful exploration and craft. I subscribe to the romantic idea that great artists are great people - richly individual people who have arrived at a highly developed sense of themselves through the medium of their art. RR also has a strong nose, strong eyes and a strong mouth. So to become more confident you need to be born with strong facial features and a lot of talent, which leaves me out.

jon said...

a strong nose! well, I'm Moses then...but of course, Moses was plagued by doubt. I think it was a fine post,Rhian. Every writer feels like a fraud at some point or another. And like Diana says, it's all in the work. Whether it's trusting to character or plot, that is the true writer's confidence, which is in the work, not the self.

christianbauman said...

Another side of it may be that projected confidence in oneself as a writer is a manifestation/symptom of the fact that for many of us (writers), our art may be one of the few things in our life we are confident about. Many of us are deeply flawed individuals (either in past, present, or both) who may have trouble looking the world in the eye on any number of subjects...but there is one thing we do in which we feel supremely in charge and capable.

You know, present company exlcuded, of course... :-)

jrlennon said...

One thing I found myself contributing to a discussion here at the Colgate conference, as part of a talk by memoirist Jennifer Brice a couple days ago, is that the first draft is for you, the last draft is for others. In other words, if you can convince yourself, truly, that the only person you need to please is yourself, then you can write a first draft. And then comes the work of erasing your particular vanities and useless preoccupations, and making the thing make sense to others. I think this is why I can write fairly quickly, and (in recent years anyway) without an outline, like Robinson--I'm the only one I need to please, and I find it easy to please myself. harder to please others. So rewriting is sometimes tough.

The problem is if you find it hard to please yourself...Rhian, would you say you are in that category...?

rmellis said...

Maybe... to be honest I don't know what my problem is!

Oh, well, keep on truckin.

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha: "I know in my case that my "self-effacing" crap is a total fraud, designed to try and hide my horrendous arrogance." I hope that's true Rhian. I often think and mis-quote what JRL said ages ago about the confidence/crushing non-confidence that writers have going on all the time. You should bring that out as a writer's bumper sticker slogan or something.

AC said...

http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/what-do-writers-really-do

Hey, this has nothing to do with the Roxana Robinson post, but I was pleasantly suprised to see a familiar name come up while reading Slate.com. The "XX factor" blog linked to an article by JRL in the LA Times. Hope I'm not embarrassing you, I just thought it was neat.

rmellis said...

AC, thanks for that link!

jrlennon said...

That new LA Times column is pretty neat--I'm glad I got the chance to contribute. I have to think up something else to send them--it seems to have gotten a lot of readers!