"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Typing in the Dark

July 8th, 2012 by

Recently, I sat down at my computer in the dark, turned it on, and, when prompted, started to type in my password. I couldn’t see where I’d placed my fingers on the keyboard, but I typed away anyway, assertively, confidently, not being sure what keystrokes I’d typed in, but watching the small dots appear. I type about sixty words a minute, and my feel for the keyboard is usually to be trusted. So I was confident. Yet when I hit enter, sure enough, I’d typed in the wrong password.

I tried it again, and had the same result.

I had one more try, and this time, I turned on the light, saw what I was doing wrong, and corrected it. And it worked. I got my computer going.

The point of my little anecdote should seem obvious enough. Don’t keep yourself in the dark. Get up and turn on the light. See what you are doing.

But there’s also this question of confidence that is supposed to help us succeed at, well, anything. I hear all the time that most things in life are accomplished through confidence. All you need is not love, as the Beatles asserted, but confidence. It’s simple, really. When others sense that air of certainty about you, they will recognize what you’ve got and, come fire and rain, you can accomplish, well, anything.

I’d be the first to admit that I don’t always exude confidence. As a lifelong introvert, my record is mixed. But I’ve also discovered that with the more important tasks I face, with writing, for example, confidence can help, but only when a few other things are in place. This past week was a case in point for me.

I’ve been working on a long story that might be a novel. I’ve been working on it for a long time—for several years—and I have had trouble with it. But I’ve also forged ahead, writing every day this summer and trying to get it right. I’ve believed in the idea fully, and I’ve sat down and worked on it—working everyday seems a lot more important, incidentally, than being confident. But that’s another story for another blog.

This past week, I finally showed my writing group and a few other writer friends of mine what I was working on. And the consensus that emerged was pretty strong. Yes, the idea was good. But the execution wasn’t. My sense that things were off, in spite of my confidence with them, was confirmed.

What I liked about these writing partners, though, had to do with the suggestions for improving that followed their diagnoses. The best of it was of the “back to the drawing board” variety. More research was needed. More sense of the reality of what I was writing about was needed.

What they were telling me was the equivalent of turning on the light and making sure of what I knew before I went back to work on it. And I did this—I spent the next two days starting my research—and the results were immediately obvious. My confidence in what I was doing started to build.

Writing is a lot like typing in the dark, especially with the first draft. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously compared writing fiction to diving underwater and going as far as you could hold your breath. John Gardner once referred to it as driving down a dark country road and not being able to see any farther than the headlights.

These first-hand accounts of the craft are enough to cause one to wonder why people do it.

I suppose a certain kind of confidence does help to keep going. But it seems more helpful to have other things as well, including a good writing group, good readers who know enough not to just tell us that everything we do is wonderful.

The hallways of shows like American Idol are strewn with the broken dreams of would be contestants whose mothers or aunts or grandmas or best friends told them they could sing. And they wouldn’t listen to advice to get rid of their “pitchiness.” I sometimes try to help my students with this. But the truth is that writing classes in schools today are complicated places, made more vexed than ever by some unproved philosophies brought to us by the self esteem movement. To hear them preach, everything is accomplished through confidence. So when I meet with some students and try to offer them the kind of help I’ve gotten with my writing, showing them what’s wrong and how to do it better, I am sometimes accused of hurting their self esteem.

I can’t help but identify with them to a point. And I can sense that their belief is a defense mechanism. But it is also one that is sanctioned by their schooling.

Everything, anything, can be done with confidence? This might be truer of the top forty singer than the nuclear scientist, for whom knowledge is required. But in today’s educational climate, we seem to have absorbed the assumption that self-esteem is vital to learning, that to accomplish anything, from football to writing to performing, all we need is to be confident that we can do it.

What’s interesting is that this belief in the power of confidence persists, even when there is growing evidence to the contrary, that enhancing self-esteem doesn’t lead, for example, to higher math scores.

What really matters to writing is hard work, but even then, we can keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We can continue to type in the dark. So it helps to have others around who will tell us the truth, who will get us to turn the lights on so that we can actually see what it is we’re doing. To have friends like that is a gift. And it may be the gift, not of confidence, but of humility.

Posted in confidence, self-esteem, writing groups| 9 Comments


Comment by Dan on July 8, 2012 at 10:55 pm

May I echo a hearty “Hooray” for your insights, Tom? I am currently assisting another professor in writing a math textbook on differential equations, and I have taken some of the work to my own students and felt the cold reality that sometimes what we do with confidence and enthusiasm just doesn’t cut it–
it flops in class where there are good students. And we have to go back the the drawing board. Writing clear math is also hard work, and not always successful the first time around.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 9, 2012 at 9:01 am

Thanks, Dan, for the perspective of the math professor. It’s interesting to hear about your process in this. I wish that the textbook writer’s at Matthew’s school this year had followed your work. The writers left out so many steps when explaining new problems that we had to go online to find out how to do them. Writing is always effective or ineffective based on audience. Thanks for your response.

Comment by Sue Tornai on July 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Tom. Turning the light on for me often means I need a new outlook or an attitude adjustment. Sometimes, however, I get to the end of me and have to surrender to God, which is His opportunity. Makes me wonder why I waited so long to reach for the switch, the switch that brings confidence.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 9, 2012 at 11:12 am

Sue, thanks for reading and for your comments. I do wish more people could drop the “self-confidence” trip and agree that the switch has to do with trusting God and not self. Hope you are writing.

Comment by Joseph Bentz on July 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I enjoyed your post, Tom. Like you, I have had many writing students who have never faced hard realities about their writing and have been told that pretty much everything they do is wonderful. I think it’s also worth pointing out, though, that some students enter writing courses, particularly at the freshman level, with the opposite problem. Writing to them means nothing more than embarrassment, red ink scrawled over their papers, and humiliation. Early on they decided writing meant only pain, so they have stayed away from it as much as possible. With those students, I do think part of my goal is to show them that writing is something they can learn, with the right combination of practice, hard work, and yes, confidence. It’s not confidence for its own sake or to build self-esteem, but confidence to break through that barrier that has made them think writing is beyond them. I know that as a student, I needed that kind of nurturing to break through my own lack of confidence in areas that were intimidating to me, such as math.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Thanks for the balanced account here, Joe. I also work with students who have been scarred by high school red ink and want to support them in their efforts to improve. You are right that it’s not “confidence for its own sake” that they need. They need real encouragement to “break through that barrier.” I like the way you put it here.

Comment by Lynn on July 11, 2012 at 12:05 am

Confidence is essential in the performing arts (acting, singing, teaching! – those areas which require standing up and commanding the attention of the room). But so much of life is better met with humility and a teachable spirit; I like to believe it’s even possible to have a teachable spirit in the arenas which require confidence (or at least *the appearance of confidence* – which is quite another thing).

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 11, 2012 at 9:11 am

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Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 11, 2012 at 9:12 am

Thanks, Lynn. I can imagine a kind of (genuine) confidence that is not tarnished by criticism but instead accepts it graciously. Like I said, I can imagine this (vaguely), but I don’t possess it myself. Thanks for posting.

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