Back in 2015, I chatted to Glynis Scrivens, author of about those moments in a writer’s life when we have a crisis of confidence.
While many people experience these crises, whatever job they do, writers in particular are more susceptible to these moments of doubt, because we tend not to have that team of work colleagues to help us put things into perspective. It’s therefore extremely useful to have mechanisms for coping with these confidence-crushing moments.
It’s often when we come to editing our work that a crisis can loom large, and therefore I asked Glynis about her experiences while writing her book.
“I’ve heard of authors having a crisis midway through writing a novel, but it never occurred to me this could happen with a non-fiction book. After all, I’d mapped out the plan of the book and had set aside a week each month to write a chapter. Some months it almost seemed too easy, especially as I retreated to our beach house for these writing sessions. The only fright I had in these early days was the arrival of a large python.
I came unstuck when I tried to write what I’d always known would be the hardest section. The chapters on punctuation and grammar. They didn’t seem to fit in with the style of the rest of the book and were in danger of being terminally boring.
I’d assumed that with 4 or 5 chapters under my belt I’d manage without too much trouble, but I lost momentum altogether. Come the end of that month I had to face the reality that the chapter wasn’t written, and that what I’d produced was terrible. I decided to spend the following month sorting it out.
And since I had a head start, as it were, I chose that month to build my first website. Something required of me before my manuscript was submitted.
Hmmm… hardest chapter + technical nightmares. And it was winter.
I began to wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew and felt like hiding under the duvet and forgetting the whole thing.
I made the same mistake with the website, trying to go faster than I could manage, enrolling on a course Your First Website in 7 Days. This timeframe fell apart on day one. It was only when I decided to approach it as a project to be completed in 7 steps rather than in 7 days that I realised it was do-able.”
I was intrigued as to how Glynis overcame each wobble. What tips and techniques did she develop for regaining confidence in her work?
“Writing THAT chapter I got through this by :
• allowing myself to take however long was needed to get it into reasonable shape – the chapter a month rule was set aside indefinitely
• I reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird – permission to write a “shitty first draft”. It didn’t have to be perfect, just done.
• I reread the experiences of the writers I’d interviewed for the book. They’d all struggled in one way or another. It helped me see the situation in a new light. Not as a personal crisis but simply a well-worn path trod by many others like me. Coming unstuck was normal. So was persevering.
• Rereading these also made me see more clearly how generous they’d been in sharing their experiences. I felt I owed them the best I could manage. This realisation gave me a second wind.
When it came to regaining confidence, I made friends again with my comfort zone by:
• some easy wins – sent photos of our pets to magazines, wrote reader letters and entered 25 word competitions
• Got back into my story writing groove – read Noah Lukeman’s books – started selling stories based on the exercises
• Confided in two writing friends, letting them remind me this was do-able.
Ultimately I knew I had to write the book, whatever hurdles it involved, because of a promise I’d made to my mother.”
I then asked Glynis if she’d ever experienced any similar crises of confidence with other writing projects? If so, what happened?
“Not on this scale. There’s more at stake with a book.
I’ve had articles commissioned that proved much harder work than I’d anticipated. I’ve had interviewees get cold feet and change their minds. I’ve been asked to rewrite stories which have then been rejected. These experiences were tiring and difficult, but I came out of them relatively unscathed.
Having said that…
Recently my confidence took a body blow. I suggested an article on rocking chairs to a magazine which often uses whimsical gentle health pieces. The editor loved the idea. It was a surprise when she asked me to do the article more as a scientific piece full of case studies and quotes from experts. But the customer is always right – I did what I was told.
Then without referring back to me she changed her mind and asked a staff writer to adapt what I’d written into something quirky and gentle. The piece I’d wanted to write all along!
It felt like a slap in the face.
I confided again in these two writing friends who showed me how to see this in a different perspective. That I was better off without an editor like that. One also reminded me that editors come and go. i should save my other ideas for her successor.
Good advice, which I’ll follow.
I’ll also take revenge in a story. These bad feelings might as well be channelled constructively. She won’t be the first editor I’ve killed off in a story – and quite probably not the last either!
Whoever said writers don’t need psychologists was right.”
Glynis is a successful writer (just check out her website). She’s had short stories and articles published in magazines across the globe. So has this experience helped her overcome a crisis in confidence?
“YES. What upsets me these days would’ve crushed me earlier. If one editor damages my self-belief – and it happens – I have emails from others to reassure me. Ones whose good opinion I value more highly.
When a new editor did a back flip recently, changing her mind about the style of piece she’d commissioned, and having it altered accordingly, it left me feeling terrible.
Fortunately this coincided with an unexpectedly positive response from another editor I was working with for the first time. She emailed that she was “thrilled” with my piece and found it “compelling”. I must’ve read and reread her email a dozen times as an antidote to the first editor.
Over the years I’ve learnt to have more than one log in the fire. There have been only three editors in the past twelve years who’ve made me feel terrible. Compared to that, I have another eight or nine who treat me very well.
I keep a notebook to remind me of the bright patches. It has a rainbow cover and contains unexpected lovely writing experiences.
I always know when I’m in a bad patch that it’s the dark bit of the tapestry. The next bright patch is just an email away.”
It struck me that, ironically, a crisis in confidence could be perceived as a good thing. It means we care about our work and how it will be received by readers. I wondered what Glynis thought of this idea.
“It’s painful going through a crisis in confidence but often the outcome is positive and makes the suffering worthwhile in the long run.
In the case of the editing book it meant I spent more time working out what I was doing and why. I’d lost sight of the big picture by focussing on writing a chapter a month.
This onset of doubt sent me back to the basics. Who was I writing the book for? What did they need?What have I learned that might save them from coming to grief?
With this in mind, I felt free to let the book go in a new direction, quite different to what I’d originally planned. This meant including a new section – Putting the Theory into Practice. A lot of writers reading the book will experience their own crises in confidence. This new section is for them. It shows a writer crying over editing challenges, a well-known novelist going through her new work 30 times, short story writers having to make drastic changes to story length.
So yes, this crisis was a good thing. It made me dig deeper and allow the book to evolve on its own.”
So there you have it. A crisis of confidence is all part and parcel of the business of writing. What’s important is how we deal with it.
PS – And can I just confirm that is a great book!