You’ve got to believe it

December 1, 2009

This piece also appeared in my December newsletter, the Inspirer. To sign up please go to my website

The issues that bug writers, such as procrastination, writers’ block and lack of motivation prevent them from fulfilling their potential. There are many ways to beat these problems into submission, and in my workshop on the subject I list 40 ways to get back on track. I used to think that one of the best ways to beat the block was self-belief, confidence, an unswerving conviction that you were good enough and you could do it. Until this week that is. Now, thanks to my friend and narrative therapist, Gitta Lieberherr, I think I’ve changed my mind.
I believed in French Tarts, my first book, which was accepted by the first publisher approached. I believed in it despite the fact that I had never been published, was 24 and did not cook. When people asked me to what I attributed my success, honestly, deep down, I would answer ‘self-belief’ and they would nod knowingly. It made sense. When they went on to ask me how I came to have such self-belief I told them that it was a combination of naivety and the fact that my father was always telling me that I was incredible, talented, beautiful and clever. But now, thanks to Gitta, I think I need to revise my answer.
I expect you’ve seen the stuff in the press about the damage that can be done to our children when we praise them too much. Indeed, telling your kids they are mini Einsteins when all they have done is get to a higher level on their Nintendo DS, can burden them with false expectations. Telling someone they are the best thing since sliced bread, when in reality they achieved something fairly ordinary, can lower, rather than raise, self-esteem.
This week I had coffee and rather delicious chocolate tart with Gitta because I wanted to talk to her about blocks and how narrative therapy might help my clients. As I mopped up the crumbs on my plate I told her what I call ‘the French Tarts story’ because it seemed the right thing to do. I told her I attributed my success to self-belief.
‘So, why did you believe in yourself, Jo?’ Gitta asked.
‘Because of my father,’ I answered. ‘He was forever crowing about how wonderful and marvelous I was.’
‘But did you believe him?’
Her question stopped me in my tracks. I laid down my fork. ‘Not really, I suppose,’ I said. ‘I was actually pretty average when I was a child.’
‘Then, do you think it was yourself you believed in or your idea?’
I fell silent as I thought. I drained my coffee and set the cup back down in the saucer. ‘The idea, I suppose,’ I answered at last. ‘I really believed in my idea.’
Thanks to Gitta’s questioning, I had exposed one of my longheld truths as a myth. She had a point. I mean, what writer is not crippled with self-doubt and the imposter syndrome now and again? What writer can bear to read every piece he writes after it is published without cringing inwardly and wishing he had done it differently? I was impressed at the speed with which she had reached the nub of an issue.
‘How did you get me to say that?’ I asked. ‘Was that an example of narrative therapy?’
Gitta smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, it was, Jo. In narrative therapy we learn how to separate the problem from the person,’ she explained. ‘I externalized the issue, of self-belief, so it was not dependent on you. When you are no longer part of the issue it creates distance and opens up new ways of handling the problem. That’s all I did. It doesn’t usually only take one question to get to the bottom of something, though,’ she laughed.
I tell my students and mentees that one of the ways to acquire this elusive self-belief is to ask for feedback, act on it, and preserve all the best testimonials, looking at them often to remind themselves that yes, they can write and write well. This works to a point. I do it myself. But, for me, this praise, however high, lasts fleetingly. When it first arrives I am delighted, buoyed up by the kind words. I stick the card on the wall, print the email, grow another inch and feel validated. But this feeling only lasts until the next piece of writing.
Each month I write this newsletter. Each month I chew my metaphorical fist with trepidation as I press the send button. What if this month’s piece is rubbish? Minutes later I get my answer. Someone writes to thank me for striking a chord and I let myself breathe out.
Self-doubt is natural. It keeps me on my toes. It forces me to try my best every single day. It keeps me from complacency. But when I believe in an idea, just as I passionately believed that French Tarts was a good idea at the right time in the right place with the right focus and aimed for the right market, then that’s what matters. That’s what makes the difference.
It does not matter whether you truly, deep down, believe in yourself. It matters that you totally, fundamentally believe in your idea. Your conviction means that your project is in your head every moment of the day and night, that your actions reflect it – that you’re living it. This is what will make the difference, living your belief or to put it narratively, living from your preferred story. It means that your face lights up when you tell people about it and they can feel your excitement too.
So then, do you believe in your idea? I hope so. How I hope so.


The following article also appears in my monthly Inspirer newsletter, designed to inspire, support and inform writers. If you would like to receive your copy each month please sign up at my website and pick up a copy of 50 Steps to a Book in Your Hand at the same time.

Here goes:

When it’s time to leave home

I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you about the thing that has dominated my thoughts since my last newsletter. My son has left home. It was not unexpected. It was inevitable, anticipated, we were prepared. Last year he completed his A levels and the year before he had applied to university in London and been accepted. He started packing the moment he heard he’d got the grades he needed. But when it was time to wave him off, two days ago, it was no less heartbreaking for me. Sam, on the other hand, had a new life to lead, alone, without me to wash his clothes and check he had enough to eat. But even as we drove off through the streets of Islington, back to the Eurotunnel, I could not suppress a slight smile of recognition, that this sweet sorrow mirrors my life as a writer.

You see, they say that a painting, like a piece of writing, is never finished, it just stops in an interesting place. They say that there comes a time when the editing must stop. A time when you actually make things worse by over-refining them. A time when you have to let them go. There comes a time when you must admit you have done your bit leave your work to find its own way.

A couple of weeks before Sam left, I had a day when the enormity of the hole his departure would leave in my life and my nest kept creeping up on me, like the children tiptoeing behind me in a game of What’s the Time Mr Wolf? I had climbed into bed with sinking heart and picked up the copy of The Muses Among Us, by Kim Stafford, that lay on my bedside table. It opened on page 38. I read:

‘One day, it is time for the child to leave home. To remain longer would reverse the principle of healthy growth. That day comes when the child is mature enough to go out into the world, and the parent has other things to do. In the terrifying words of Donald Graves, we should not linger so long with a piece of writing that we begin “giving a manicure to a corpse.”‘

Since reading those lines my feelings about the departure of my firstborn became calmer. If could totally empathise with Stafford’s beliefs as a writer then it followed that if it was time to let go of my son, it was time to let go.

Back in May I had finally finished my novel and realized that it was time I stopped trying to improve it and let it go, too. I printed out a synopsis, cover letter and three sample chapters, put it in a padded bag and sent it out into the world. It is now doing the rounds of the agents. Sure, I keep thinking about it, missing the days I spent writing it, lost in a parallel universe with my characters. But I know I was right to let it leave home.

In my experience as a writer’s mentor, I have seen many instances where overworking ends up spoiling a very good piece of writing. Sure, you have to ‘murder your children’, as they say, and cut some of the best bits. Sure, you have to cut superfluous or empty words, repetition and to keep things simple. But there comes a time when you can cut too much and may have nothing left. I am also a firm believer in the principle that often the thing you think of first may be the best and that, as Hamlet says in the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy: ‘the native hue of resolution //is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’ It can be dangerous to think about something too much or too long.

And so, as I sit at my desk in the knowledge that we now have a spare bedroom again, I ask you to think about your writing, to let it flow, to try not to stunt its growth and to recognise when it is time to let it go.


If you like this, and would like more of the same, take a look at the Publishing Academy, where I am a faculty member. It is packed with information and inspiration for writers, just like this.