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?