Confidence Game

“To write you must have a streak of arrogance.” —Richard Hugo

At a comedy show I was at not long ago, the stand-up was doing a bit about how the main reason he was happy to be married was not having to deal with getting married. In the middle of it, a woman near the front of the audience shouted out, “Him too!” and gestured at the guy next to her.

There was a pause.

Then the comic looked at her and said something to the effect of, “You just messed up my act. But putting that aside, I’m very, very impressed that you would have the confidence to think that everyone in this theater would be interested in your observations.”

The remark has stuck with me. The reason is a growing sense that my life as a writer — and that of my fellow writers as well — is predicated on just such a sense, that everyone in the theater is interested in our observations.

This is an odd thing, when you think about. Certainly, I know quite a few people who are smart and verbal and have a lot of interesting things to say, yet are very reluctant to turn their thoughts into text, even on social media (or, in an extreme case, email).  I have a friend who’s an extremely accomplished expert and leader in his field, who has given speeches and workshops on it for years, and who has talked about turning them into a book. My hunch is that this is not going to happen. Confident as he is in most other ways, he does not appear to have the confidence — Richard Hugo would call it “arrogance” — of the woman in the theater.

I reckon most people have a mix of self-confidence and self-doubt. If I didn’t have some core level of arrogance, I wouldn’t have even been able to start out as a freelance writer, but at that time the self-doubt was bigger. I sent out unsolicited pieces and article pitches, and each acceptance that came added a small brick to my confidence. Now, decades later, I am fully the theater-woman. I send out my observations, unbidden, on more platforms than you could imagine.

In recent years, multiple opportunities for anonymity have added a new element to the equation. That is, it appears that not having to sign their name to their words has emboldened many people to publicly share their observations, especially critical ones. If you don’t believe me, just look at the comments below.

I’ve been reading Thomas Kunkel’s forthcoming biography of the great New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell, and this confidence thing has shed some light, for me, on the great mystery of his life. In 1964, Mitchell published a long article. (“Joe Gould’s Secret.”) He continued to be a New Yorker staff writer until his death in 1996, but he never published another word in the magazine, and no one ever had the nerve to ask the respected and beloved writer what was going on. Kunkel does a good job telling us, detailing the false starts and personal issues that preoccupied Mitchell in these years.

But now I have a sense that something else was also going on. Mitchell, a humble man at heart, had manufactured within himself the necessary streak of arrogance, and he kept it going for years. But eventually, it dissipated, and he woke up, as it were, wondering why he had ever thought that the world at large would be interested in his observations.



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