Do writers lack confidence?

Can’t speak for everyone, of course, but it’s my general impression many authors don’t have great faith or confidence in their own work. They are mostly a shy bunch, the ones I’ve met anyway, backwards in coming forwards.

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

There are exceptions of course. Norman Mailer was hardly shy for example. He seems to have been aggressive in the face of pretty much everything. He once got in a near fatal fight in the street with three sailors because they said his miniature poodle was ‘gay’. I suspect his confidence was boosted by the huge, unexpected and breath-taking success of his first book The Naked and the Dead. After its publication he was feted across the USA like a movie star. It was Martin Amis who pointed out that someone in the UK whose book had a similar level of success would buy a set of filing cabinets and consider giving up their job as a school teacher.

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Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s one of the questions people most often ask writers – and one of the hardest to answer – Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s tough to answer because there’s no one place, and sometimes we don’t know ourselves where we get them – it‘s like some kind of deeply felt sympathetic magic. Norman Mailer called writing ‘the spooky art’ and this is why. By the time something I’ve written is finished it’s difficult to say where it originated – if I didn’t know the process it took to get there I’d say it just arrived on its own.

For me the fairest, simplest answer to the question where do you get your ideas from? Would be – they evolve.

That’s the truth, it’s a statement more honest than if I’d said I got them from listening to friends, or watching people on the bus, or reading books. Bits and pieces can come from all these places of course, and many more: newspapers, magazines, rock songs, dreams. But the point is that a finished story or book is highly unlikely to have something in it which is a straight lift from art or life – it will have evolved, with time and thought and rewriting, into its final form.

Perhaps that’s why some authors get grumpy about the ‘based on’ question which seems to be the line of inquiry so often these days from people looking to find a way into a piece of fiction. Was this character based on such and such a person? It’s as though writing has to have a direct route back into the artist’s biography – whereas often the reality is that a character in a story or novel is at least partly the way they are because they have to serve the plot – the whole thing is an artistic construction after all, not a personal diary.

In some ways I suppose it’s not where I get my ideas from, but where they lead to which is important to me. But hey – where do you get your ideas from?