Writers need confidence. They need confidence to believe their ideas are worth writing, or they’d never put anything down. They also need confidence to believe that the words they choose to express those ideas are the best words they can think of; otherwise, they’d be drive themselves nuts rewriting the thing over and over again, struggling to get it “just right.”
(The third area of confidence, if their writing is not of the blogatory variety, is the confidence to believe that their ideas, in whatever form they enstructure them, have a reasonable chance of selling.)
Most people don’t write, believing, “What do I have to say that’s so special?” Maybe they’re right, or maybe the world missed out on a wonderful writer with valuable insights. You can’t force people to write. Any more than you can force some writers to stop.
I once mentioned to a successful television writer I know that “I don’t know why anyone would write when they don’t have anything to say.” The writer stared at me blankly and proceeded to enrich himself penning mindless comedies. (It’s quite possible my concept of “the writer’s purpose” is narrower than it needs to be. See posting on “Arrogance”, coming shortly.)
The finest example, for me, of a writer’s “confidence cycle” in its exquisite completeness appears in the cult comedy classic Bye Bye Braverman (1968), written by Herb Sargent, (based on the 1964 novel To An Early Grave by Wallace Markfield.) My friend Paul and I have been unsuccessfully searching for a copy of this movie for years. You guys are good at that stuff. Maybe you can help.
Bye Bye Braverman revolves around four old pals, reuniting to attend a friend’s funeral, and they can’t find it. That’s the entire plot. But inside the movie are various rapturous moments, including a scene near the end, where George Segal, standing in a cemetery, discourses on the myriad changes in the world that the people lying dead in the cemetery have missed.
The “confidence cycle” scene features one of the four buddies, a blocked book reviewer named “Holly Levine”, played by Sorrell Booke (who went on to play “Boss” Hogg on the Dukes of Hazzard TV series.)
The character, “Levine”, sits abjectly in front of his typewriter (it was 1968), agonizing over a review that he hasn’t started writing. There were a few false starts, which sit crumpled in his wastebasket. Close-up on “Levine”, staring, almost paralyzed, at a blank white page.
I may not get the details exactly right – I saw the movie once, forty years ago – but after a torturous struggle, “Levine” overcomes his writer’s block, and in a mad flurry of creative inspiration, types the first paragraph of his review.
“Certainly….” That’s how it started. “Certainly…” It was followed by a paragraph, dashed off with flying fingers, of one piece, without a moment’s hesitation. His writer’s block is over. As the ballplayer’s say, he is “in the zone.”
“Levine” snatches the paper from the typewriter, reading it with satisfaction and delight – “Certainly…” and what follows composed more brilliantly that he could possibly have imagined. The imaginative choice of words. The effortless-feeling flow. The clear, concise, cogent – and indisputably correct – point of view. “Levine” is thrilled with his effort. He is certain to be declared a genius.
“Levine” moves to return the page to his typewriter. Suddenly, there’s a flicker of hesitation. Something appears to be amiss.
Harboring last-minute second thoughts, he re-reads the paragraph. His confidence recedes with every word. It’s an alarming transformation. What was perceived moments earlier to be perfect now seems considerably less so. It may be worse than that. The paragraph may actually stink.
The symbol of his displeasure is reflected in the single word he recites from his previously “flawless” review.
“Levine” crumples the paper and tosses it in the wastebasket.
Who can say what turned things around? An inner critical voice, the writer’s own or some powerful “other.” On the other hand, maybe it’s not the “Voice of Doubt” that’s speaking. Maybe it’s the “Voice of Truth.”
Maybe what “Levine” wrote, and was temporarily enamored of, was actually not very good. Maybe “Levine” is an inadequate evaluator of his own writing. Or maybe, going to the heart of the matter, “Levine” is simply unsuited for his chosen line of work, totally lacking in talent, and having no business whatsoever considering himself a writer.
With thoughts like those flying around, it’s amazing anyone ever writes anything at all.