Two nights before I left Vancouver I sat on the beach with friends, and one of them posed a question: what did each of us feel absolutely confident in? What ability or sphere did we not worry about, did we firmly believe was a strength? It’s actually a weirdly vulnerable question to answer in front of others (because what if they think your confidence is misplaced?!?) but sitting on the sand, in the cradle of sea and mountain and city, we did it. I, perhaps embarrassingly, knew my answers immediately. I am confident that I can write, and I am confident that I can dress myself well.
Over the last couple of weeks, though, confidence has not been on my mind. I’ve felt bogged down. Since I’ve been at the cabin here at Tahoe I’ve been back at revising the novel, though it feels like more of a chore than it did before. I’ve wondered if shaping my life for the next year or so around the possibility of getting it published is foolish, if people are looking at me and thinking my confidence is misplaced, if there’s any room for me in the already over-saturated literary industry, if what I’m doing is more a game of chance than a game of talent. I’ve had conversations in the last few days with family and friends in which I’ve explained every bit of the issue, willing them to understand the Rubik’s cube of my anxieties, willing them to say the right thing, the magic words that will make me feel better. But no one has, and I’m beginning to think that this fear over the risks I’m taking is simply the Rubicon I have to cross at the moment, and solid ground will appear in the distance again if I’m patient. But still. I must ford it for now, and it’s unpleasant.
And then last night, after a good cleansing cry, the likes of which I hadn’t had in a long, long time, I found myself thinking back to one of my earliest moments of confidence in my writing. I was thirteen years old and after a science test I pulled out a small journal, while others slept or whispered or continued to struggle over multiple choice questions. I found a pencil and began to describe the scene around me and an immense wave of satisfaction washed over me, because the sentences I had written were clever—they were right. I’d done good. I’d want an audience very soon, but in that moment, even with my plain brown eyes and the awkward hands I was embarrassed of, I did not need anyone to tell me that I’d bundled real life into a few biting words on the page. I knew it for myself. No one, I was gloriously certain as I looked down at that yellow and brown notebook, could do what I had just done.
Writing looks much different now. I watch the world around me more humbly than I used to. I wait for revelation, for light. I gather pieces of it like pebbles to see if once I sit down with them, and hold them in my hand, I can scrabble up the words to do justice to their beauty and their oddity. In the past week, I have collected the glitter of sand in the water as it comes up to the lake shore in gentle waves, a young couple with dreads, looking as if they’ve been hitchhiking for days, sitting exhausted against the back of Whole Foods, two stellar’s jays with tall black crests, the evening light on the long row of old wine corks on the kitchen windowsill, and a man at Fallen Leaf Lake today, asleep in his golf cart on his property, feet propped up by the steering wheel.
But none of this would have been possible without that girl in the science classroom and her supreme sense of confidence over a fifty word journal entry scrawled in a pencil that needed sharpening. She was and is the one, more than any outside voice, who reminds me that yes, of course I can do something with all these tiny gifts, of course I can write. Why would I assume for a second that I couldn’t? Writing is joy.
But writing is different from publishing. And there I have no native confidence that an agent scanning with an eye for saleability will immediately see the value of what I am trying to do, no confidence that I can instinctively make the right decisions about where and how to settle for now, about how long to wait for a bite on the manuscript, about what job to take in the meantime, about which creature comforts to sacrifice and which to cling to. The route I’m taking seems ridiculous, untried, and uncertain.
And yet. Last night I guess I thought about my thirteen-year-old self a lot. Because I also for some reason remembered the time I wore denim-on-denim to play practice. After school I’d changed from my uniform with much deliberation into jeans and a pale denim jacket (which I’d always zip to the exact same point to make me look like I had a figure that I definitely didn’t—and still don’t—have). I can still see myself walking down the deck outside the modulars toward the drama room with my heart in my throat. I can’t entirely tell you why I wore it, even today. The outfit was a simultaneously conscious and nerve-wracking choice. Certainly no one else would be wearing anything like it. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked something so matchy, if it looked good, and none of my friends were in the play so I’d have no safe camaraderie to run to once I arrived. I’d be on my own, looking unusual. But I knew that if I didn’t try, I’d never know—what if me walking into the room in shoulder-to-toe denim would be the most beautiful thing the world had ever seen? So, without consulting anyone, I chose confidence, because that was the only way further up and further in. Funnily, I don’t remember what happened when I did walk in. It must not have been very important.
So perhaps I learned everything I’ll ever need to know about confidence back in 2005. Even then, I knew that confidence was not so much ego as it was trust. It was utter trust in a gift, trust that it was not some cosmic mistake that something had fallen into my lap, but instead that Someone had placed it there on purpose and I ought to follow the urge in my gut to hold it up to the late afternoon light and laugh over it with words. And strangely enough, even back then I knew confidence had to admit an element of risk, a willingness to fail. I knew that the things which are the most good and the most beautiful and the most true all ultimately happen and become themselves in places where there is no cover from enemy fire—in open meadows and out on the western plains.