Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Whither Confidence?

Let's start, like all indifferent news articles, with a platitude: personal confidence is as wobbly as a jelly set before a gang of children at a street party to celebrate a royal wedding. [ I expect a call from one of the tabloids any minute now after such a well extended, topical metaphor. Hello? The phone's ringing.]

If you follow any sport, you will hear trainers, coaches and managers as well as the individuals concerned constantly referring to this mysterious quality described as confidence. You will watch a team of talented individuals either dominate or collapse and so celebrate or scratch your head. Certain individuals seem to be able to instil confidence in others, Sir Alex Ferguson being the exemplar. Indeed, the measure of a good manager in any sphere is one who can inspire confidence in those he or she manages.

But what is confidence?

For those who know no better and have no experience to prove otherwise, confidence frequently emerges as arrogance. Ugly but forgivable in the young. Less attractive in those who are older. But it is a fine line that exists between an overwhelming sense of self, of one's superiority, and the comfortable knowledge of what one is and what one can achieve. This is not to say confidence is the recognition of one's boundaries in the sense that one knows how far to trespass but the recognition of what binds you and how much further you must push. It is at this point that one becomes wobbly and self-belief is your only ally. You can see the circularity of the argument. Pushing further means placing yourself in a position where you have no experience, where, like the young, you must rely again on naked belief in your abilities. How easy it is for the circle to crack and for you to doubt the talent that brought you to this point.

It happens to individuals who play team sports; the multi-million pound striker you goes game after game without scoring a goal. It infects whole teams who find themselves unaccountably losing after reigning supreme. And most especially it paralyses those who rely on their wits to produce.

I have yet to define confidence, only the situation that anyone who writes will recognise. Confidence is like water. It trickles away between the synapses without you being aware until you find yourself dehydrated and depressed for no obvious reason. The situation is made no easier by the fact that the motivation for some of us who write is to assert ourselves, to express our individuality through words. I make this distinction of a writer who writes to push boundaries from those who write for more obvious commercial reasons not to say that one is better than the other but that the latter is more amenable to being motivated than the former.

Given a brief, the objective is clear so the writer who struggles can be encouraged. Given no brief but the desire to bring to the surface some ineffable idea, who can rally? It is this ambition that makes certain authors famously difficult. The struggle they face is with themselves and out of that struggle the work is created - if and when it is.

If this were a well-rounded article, I would now offer the magic solution. Bang and the dirt is gone.

I have this vague belief that a lapse in confidence for a writer is similar to a stitch for a long-distance runner. You have to persevere; run it off. But it is a rubbish metaphor. You never notice your confidence draining away. It is only when, like me, you are trying to write a letter for a part-time job that has your name all over it in embossed lettering and you cannot string an opening sentence together after three days of banging your head against the screen that you discover jellies look positively concrete compared to you.

Having said that, this is a dreadful warning for anyone with aspirations that are out of control: an interview with Tony Hancock, one of Britain's most brilliant radio comics, which took place in 1961 - though according to Wikipedia it was in 1960 - with John Freeman on Face to Face and just before his break with his writers, Simpson and Galton, and subsequent rapid decline into alcoholism and eventual suicide in 1968.

Anon: Fequently on radio and television and nine films you play artists and intellectuals…

TH: Yes

Anon: Does this mean you would like to be one?

TH: Well actually, I think I am deep down. It's never been appreciated entirely but I think it's there. I think I can safely say that. It's only a question of time.

Anon: Before what?

TH: Before it's recognised.

Correction: The quote is not from Face to Face: I've  just watched the original interview on YouTube and though fascinating the above does not feature - I got it from BBC Radio Extra Bollocks (the link will only last for a week). However, the Freeman interview is well worth thirty minutes of your time, be you a fan or not. Part I, Part II, Part III.


Sue Guiney said...

A fascinating post and one we all can identify. I know I was on a real confidence high (hopefully not in an arrogant way) when I came back from my SE Asian book tour. but within 1 week if being back in London, all my new-fiund confidence was clearly draining away.It is a constant struggle to keep it up but it's crucial that we do. f we don't nothing will ever get accomplished. And besides, it"s all nonsense in our heads, anyway.

DOT said...

I read on a blog somewhere of a published author who meditates each morning to put himself in a positive frame of mind, which sounds a good idea, though I would prefer to swim for thirty minutes if only I had a personal pool - can't be swimming up people's bottoms in a public pool first thing of a morning.

I liked the way you slipped in your SE Asian tour. I'm impressed :)