I can vividly remember the first time I managed to write for a whole day. It was the first week of the summer holidays, I was about fifteen, and I shut myself away in my bedroom, pouring words onto a slow, ancient computer my parents had purchased second-hand for £50. You could type on it, and that was about it. No internet connection, no games, just Microsoft Word and an ancient, dusty keyboard. It was perfect.
I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction. I was obsessed. I’d write for a couple of hours and then print it, and put it in a folder, chapter by chapter. I didn’t do much editing, and I didn’t look back. I wish I had this confidence now, to just keeping driving the narrative forward. I wrote about 70,000 words that year, and it’s still the longest thing I’ve ever written.
When you’re first writing, you think you can write anything, and there’s a wonderful freedom in that. You can get up one day and decide to write a murder mystery, an epic poem, a western – and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never tried it before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even read one before.
I suppose it’s a case of the old cliché: the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. As you read more, you realise there are so many possibilities… so many ways of twisting language, turning out a plot, spinning a character. You lose confidence.
I’ve gone through a few stages in my writing where I think I’ve finally figured out what I’m doing, only to discover a whole new level of the craft and to lose my way. I suppose this is the case with any skill… I see it in my life as an English teacher. Take a student who has coasted their way through the first five years of secondary school, someone who understood the basics of the study of literature when they were 11 or 12, and that stood them through until GCSE. Said student achieves an A* with minimal effort. Said student signs up for ‘A’ Level English Lit, and bam, it suddenly gets hard. Read Shakespeare? On my own? Lit theory – what’s that, then? It’s so common with sixth formers, in any subject – the blind panic of realising the next level up from GCSE is actually, well, hard. I remember this feeling from my own time at school – feeling out of your depth, losing confidence, feeling shame at failing for the first time. As a straight A student, getting my first D in a mock exam was mortifying.
I suppose I’ve built up some kind of resilience as a writer. After all, I’m still doing it. I’ve studied writing, been told I’m not doing it right (lots). I think I’ve been reasonably good at taking advice, without taking it to heart. I probably will never write again with the free abandon I did as a kid, but I don’t feel crushed by a lack of confidence. I know I can write. I’m no Hilary Mantel, but I can string a few words together. I can tell a tale. I’ve just got to remember that when it gets tough, and keep going.
So much about writing is about confidence… I think I understand that better now. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to believe your own stories are good enough in order to finish them. If you don’t believe they’re good, no one else will.