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The confidence trick: skiing and writing

So, I'm most of the way up a French mountain, watching the cloud come down and the wind make waves in the snow, and I'm thinking about confidence and courage and technique. We're here, the marquis and me, to ski, but I am not skiing: I'm here in the hotel room with my tablet while the marquis skis out there in the wind and cloud.

Because for me, skiing is all about confidence and courage and, yes, technique. I'm an okay skier. I'll never be good: I started too late and I don't ski regularly enough and I don't have the confidence and only sometimes the courage. The marquis, who *is* a good skier, says I have the technique to cope with most of the conditions I might meet. Several ski instructors have said the same. But the thing is, I don't believe them. I've skied steep runs and icy ones, moguls and unpisted runs; in mist and thick cloud, in strong winds and in snowstorms, in flat light and, once, in almost no light at all. I've skied narrow tracks which are full of people. I've found myself alone on steeps and bumps and coped because I had to.

None of that killed me. None of that left me with anything worse than bruising (so far, touch wood). In that sense, I suppose the marquis is right: I have the technique I need. But the thing is, you see, I don't do any of these things perfectly -- and if I'm not perfect, then my head knmows for certain sure that I am not good enough, insufficient, wrong and not allowed.

And then there's other people. Ski runs are full of other people. The rule of the piste is that you look out for and ski to avoid worrying, inconveniencing or harming those who are downslope of you. Those who are upslope are not your responsibility. But I can't make myself believe that. I have to be the perfect skier to avoid inconveniencing anybody, up- or downslope. I have to be neat. I have to ski well enough so as not to cause the marquis to be ashamed of me and not to look too stupid in front of others. I have to be perfect in order to avoid causing harm, or doing wrong. And in my head, any failure of perfection is a potential wrong.

Writing is the same. In my head, always, there is a perfect book, the book of my dreams, the book I am writing towards, reaching towards, hoping to write. It's shaped just right: it says and does all the things I want to say in precisely the right way. It feels right -- and feel is a big thing for me in writing. If the words on the screen, the paper, give me that same tingle I get from my favourite parts of my favourite, most-admired books (the 'Place Royale chapter in Vingt Ans Apres; the death of Porthos; the end of Dying of the Light or of Ancient Light), then I know I've got it right. But it almost never happens. Like skiing, most of the time, the words -- the turns -- are not-quite-there, not shapely enough, not neat enough, not perfect. And the book -- or the properly skied challenging run -- remains something that, in my head, I essentially failed at.

And then, when it comes down to it, people do judge. And -- in the case of published work, at least -- that's fair enough. It's irritating and sometimes hurtful when strangers call out comments about my skiing (or my face or clothes or age or body). Reviews are fair game. But the art is avoiding inintended harm. One reviewer labelled Gracielis a Mary Sue, which irritated me, because a) how to suppress women's writing 101 and b) hello, reviewer, *Thierry* is my darling. Another however noted that in , the womenn suffer more than the men. I hadn't noticed that nor intended it, but the culture that made me taught me that women with power are at greater risk and I reproduced that. Right until the point where I started writing in the hope I might produce something publishable, I had always written female characters as the main protagonist. But first Valdarrien (in a drawer) and then Ghosts placed men at the centre. Aude was harder to write than either Valdin or Gracielis, because with every page I was fighting the script that told me she didn't belong in the limelight. (Aude herself disagrees profoundly with this statement.) Women's writing is policed and judged at every turn, and the definitions of perfection change all the time, vary between cultures -- but women, in particular, seem sometimes to be expected to satisfy everyone while simultaneously removing themselves from sight and hearing because public writing space remains gendered mostly male and women's work is inferior, imitative, irrelevant and, of course, much more likely to be failed and broken and evil. It would take a perfect writer to avoid that -- and I am not, never will be, a perfect writer. And then, this kind of perfection -- the perfection that satisfies others, avoids harm, does not take up space etc etc -- is closer in type to that perfect skier I cannot be than the author of the perfect book I sometimes glimpse. The perfect book is in my head, after all, but these other perfections are all about the needs and wants and demands and angers of others.

All this is, frankly, a pain in the rear. The marquis doesn't expect perfection and I've only met one ski instructor who did (and he was more interested in lunch than teaching anyway). Those upslope skiers have other things on their mind. I know perfectionism is a bad habit. But I can't break it. I can't break it because I have never yet in all my too many years managed to work out how I can possibly ever allow myself to be good enough, imperfect, without that being deadly wrong. (And it does sometimes feel like it's about life and death.)


I don't have these standards for others. Other people are allowed, most definitely, to be good enough. They can be rubbish, if they want (they usually don't). It's only me. And mostly, it's so that I won't be in the way, inconvenient, in someone else's light.

I'm told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident. That solves everything, it seems. A confident skier says, 'I have the technique, I can handle these conditions.' A confident writer says... Well, they say something. It just that, well....

What do people mean? What is confidence, anyway and where is the border with entitlement? And if I'm supposed to be confident for my own good, how come the request that I be so is so often phrased in ways that suggest it's really all about others. "You need to be more confident. It makes the department look bad." "Your underconfidence is really annoying." "Why can't you be more confident, then, if you don't like it when you get overlooked?"

And if I do speak up, things are inclined to fall (metaphorically) on my head. If I was perfect, presumably, they wouldn't fall; I'd have done confidence right and all would be well. I might never reach the perfect book (I don't think that's possible) but I might get to be that good enough skier who wasn't inconveniencing *everyone* just by being there and feel permitted to write without too mkuch fear.

But confidence, like perfection, is just out of reach.

SKirt of the day -- blue wedgwood (of course a skirt has come with me.)

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history_monk
Mar. 15th, 2015 04:26 pm (UTC)
"What is confidence, anyway?"

For a lot of people, it's only bluff. It seems to be so habitual with them that they either don't understand it can be anything else, or they simply can't admit it.

Actual self-awareness, for one's own feelings and motives, seems to be pretty rare. That's why so many people want to "find themselves" - they don't know what to pretend to be, and haven't grasped that they don't have to pretend.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:16 pm (UTC)
It's a lot easier to bluff when you're male: people are preprogrammed to acceopt male testimaony. Women's skills are far more likely to be questioned and belittled -- and confident women muich more likely to be labelled 'pushy' or 'aggressive'.
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shewhomust
Mar. 15th, 2015 04:28 pm (UTC)
What a thought-provoking post.

Some of the thoughts are questions, clarifications: are you not skiing at all on your skiing holiday, or is it just today that the wind and the cloud outweight your degree of confidence?

And I can't tell from this whether you enjoy skiing (and indeed writing, though I think that's a separate set of questions!) - or whether you *would* enjoy skiing in those perfect conditions of weather and nobody else about...

But also, the counter-argument that too much confidence is also lethal: inh writing it results in nothing worse than bad books, but on the slopes, literally lethal. So that confidence, too, is something that has to be pitched just so, with the turns just so.

Fortunately, at work if not when skiing, it may be possible to fake it.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:16 pm (UTC)
I skied this morning, then decided that the wind was too much. It's a balancing acgt between courage and nerve.
(no subject) - shewhomust - Mar. 15th, 2015 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
suricattus
Mar. 15th, 2015 04:29 pm (UTC)
It's always interesting hearing you think out loud on these things because I understand, on one hand, the desire to create the perfect book, the one that says and does exactly as it would in my head, that nails every point I want to make with grace and skill and delicacy, and the frustration that inevitably occurs when it reaches none of these goals... Argh. Yes.

and yet, at the same time, I think "perfection is finite. Perfection is done. I cannot be perfect because I am a messy slab of living meat." And I wonder if what you see as confidence, is the acceptance of that sloppiness?

(as a skier, I've crashed into a tree and survived, tho my nose is now somewhat dented. Sloppy meat. But it makes a great story.)

I don't know, I'm just thinking through my fingers here, too.

Edited at 2015-03-15 04:32 pm (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:19 pm (UTC)
My sole serious skiing injury wasn't my fault -- I was on a rope drag and the person in front fell, taking the rope with him. The sudden strong pull that caused through the rope craxked my rib. This did not help with my sense of needing to be absolutely safe from evberyone else around me!
I don't expect to grasp that inner perfecgt book, but I do wish I could break free of feeling that obligation to be perfect for the benefit of others.
(no subject) - suricattus - Mar. 15th, 2015 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Mar. 15th, 2015 08:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
heleninwales
Mar. 15th, 2015 04:46 pm (UTC)
A lot of what you say also applies to me and how I think. Not with skiing because I've never tried it, but it absolutely applied when I used to ride and keep horses. I'd do things that were a bit hairy and survive, but I would never believe that I survived due to my own skill and put it down to being lucky. Therefore instead of trying again and doing it better, I made sure that I never got into those situations again in case my luck ran out. As shewhomust said, there is a very fine line between being the right amount of confident and dangerous overconfidence.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, there is. Plus those of us who are female and over a certain age are fighting very strong programming that tells us to doubt and deride ourtselves in order to please and sustain others.
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msagara
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:06 pm (UTC)
I'm told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident.

I think the trick, rather, is to learn to write through the fear. I get this all the time. There’s no point at which there is no fear; there’s no point at which the confidence is supreme and the fear completely vanishes, and the book suddenly becomes a thing of gold, a perfect thing. People learn to live with, and through, fear in entirely different ways.

I’m a bit odd. I hate fear.* I hate fear more than pretty much anything. I consider it soul-destroying, self-destroying. I understood way back (at fifteen, I think), that fear of a thing was actually worse than the thing itself. Living in fear was wore than taking the chin-hit. I hasten to add that this is because I lived in a relatively safe house with relatively safe parents, in a neighborhood where walking down the street was unlikely to get me shot by, say, police. I understand that in some ways, my methods of dealing with fear come from a solidly middle-class privilege.

When I realized that i was actually afraid of doing something - not cautious, which is the smart side of fear, and doesn’t eviscerate me mentally in the same way - I would immediately go and do that thing. Because doing it, facing it, was still not as bad as living with the burden of the fear of it. This sounds extreme. Let me explain. I would not randomly jump out a window because I was afraid of falling out of it, for instance.

But the skiing is a good example (I don’t ski). Assuming I wanted to ski, I would ski. I would have the experience of all past successes; I would have experience and knowledge of how to handle things that I have handled before. And damn it I would do it because I was afraid. In *that* sense, it would look like confidence to the outside. Experience sometimes allows me to negotiate with fear (sometimes I can’t, because fear is a thug). On the inside of my head, I would be angry enough at the fear that there would be a wall of “F You, Fear”.

People often think i’m fearless; I’m not. No one is fearless. But my way of coping with fear is possibly not everyone’s way of coping with it (my long-suffering husband feels it is unusual).

My husband’s way of coping with it is different. He can look away, just slant his vision so that fear doesn’t take up the whole of his viewpoint. I think writers suffer from over-focus, so that isn’t something I can do. But: he can live with fear, can lessen it objectively, and can work alongside it.

In both cases, we have given up on the idea that we will feel no fear. We fear things. We have had to learn how to live with fear, to move through it.

To write through it, even when we have spent a year and a half writing a book and then torching all the work and starting over four times. That kind of thing.

ETA: * my own fear. I hate my own fear. I should have made this clearer.

Edited at 2015-03-15 05:12 pm (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:36 pm (UTC)
That's interesting. I don't think I've ever asked myself how I feel about fear. I am, pretty much, always afraid. Fear has been my main mode of protection as far back as I can remember -- fear and caution and Being Good. So doing the scary thing is really hard, because it feels like inviting punishment, and while I'm good at forcing myself to be brave in some ways, the deeper under my skin a thing is, the harder the fear is to conquer. Skiing is quite a long way out from where I live, so I can, a lot of the time, grit my teeth. Writing, not so much. What I hate most about the points of failure -- which I tend to thinki of as failure-of-perfection errors -- is how unpredictable they are, and, often, how random. The time my luggage was the last item on the belt and one of my friends was furious with me because he didn't like waiting -- there was nothing I could have done to prevent that but it was my fault. The time a friend of Phil's lit into me in public for asking a mutual friend about her job, and went on to upbraid me for having done a PhD, having dared ever to write, having dared to be out of work.... I'd asked out of interest and his rant turned out to be about an issue he had with his partner, but I was there and he felt no compunction in using me as a punching bag. Family things.... I'm programmed to defer and be good but I can't control entropy, and, well, better always watchful and anxious than in-the-way and harmed. The marquis is like T, and can look away, and he doesn't completely get why I can't (though he is incredibly patient about it). So in a way it's less about fear than it is about avoiding punishment (and regrettably one of the ways I'm warped is that I have taught myself to self-punish as required, which annoys the hell out of me).
I don't know if I think of you as brave: you are so very *you* -- smart, insightful, quick-thinking and willing to speak your mind. I admire you hugely, certainly: you're so good at being you and that's wonderful.

Edited at 2015-03-15 05:38 pm (UTC)
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lamentables
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:48 pm (UTC)
As so often, it feels like you've been walking around in my head. I think it's a function of being female and of a similar age & background.

I think the one thing that has helped me most with this problem was an out-and-out, indisputable failure to be perfect, a professional error that initially felt devastating. It seems perverse, but surviving that left me with a much stronger sense that I am good at what I do, that my clients respect me, and that having to say 'I'm sorry, I made a mistake' or 'I'm sorry, I don't know the answer, I'll have to check' won't destroy me or their respect.

Of course there's the years of therapy too.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 15th, 2015 05:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes: we are all so well-trqaioned, as women of our age, to be the ideal support network. Infuriating and harmful.
And yes; I can see how that might work. I find with me it depends on the others inovlced: if there's one who is outraged, I feel like I have done the worswt thing ever.
(no subject) - lamentables - Mar. 15th, 2015 06:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
mikaela_l
Mar. 15th, 2015 06:06 pm (UTC)
*hugs* Yes, perfection is always out of reach, but like Laura Anne, I don't want perfection for many reasons. The main reason is that I think perfection is dull, and makes people dislike you. And then there are the fact that everyone has a different opinion about what perfect is. :)

I also suspect that you are worried that the book will never be done. You are fretting about a lot of book related things. I cannot help you with that. Except to tell you to get your ass into the war room every day.
swan_tower
Mar. 15th, 2015 10:35 pm (UTC)
The main reason is that I think perfection is dull, and makes people dislike you.

There's a video by Ze Frank called "An Invocation for Beginnings," which is one of the few motivational things I've ever found actually, y'know, motivational. One of the memorable lines from it goes something like: "Perfection may look good in his shiny shoes, but he's a bit of an asshole and nobody invites him to their pool parties."
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dancinghorse
Mar. 15th, 2015 06:13 pm (UTC)
And I admire you enormously for leaping off mountains at speed. I have too much fear. I love to ski cross-country, but downhill? Aaaaaaaa! (My brother borrowed my skis early on and broke them, and his leg, to the extent of surgery and metal plate, so that did it for me.)

What you say about skiing and perfection is why I don't show horses and why I have a lot of trouble riding in front of anyone. Letting go of perfect is a difficult process.

I am very glad that you let go of it to publish your writing, because your writing is so lovely. (And Aude is my favorite. Of course she doesn't agree with you! That made me laugh.)
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
Now me, I'm impressed by cross country skiers. How do you balance on such narrow skis? And getg uphill without sliding backwards?
I was lucky with the books, in that Sheila thought they were good enough to puiblish, and supportive friends like Lisanne Norman and Ian Watson and Geoff Ryman encouraged me to try and sell my work. I don;t know if I'd been brave enough without them.
(no subject) - dancinghorse - Mar. 16th, 2015 05:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
ex_triciasu
Mar. 15th, 2015 07:40 pm (UTC)
Kari I admire you a lot for speaking about all of this openly and candidly.

I can relate to this (although I'm a terrible skier and never let that stop me) because hate doing anything if I think people are looking at me. I go to pieces. That's why I'm a writer--the effort is offstage, invisible to the audience. Exams are hard for me because I feel like I'm being watched while I problem-solve.

About exams. You know that I have been struggling to learn maths and stuff for some years now. A surprising amount of that is about confidence, but not in the way people usually mean confidence. Not putting up a false front, not faking anything. Just being willing to fail. A lot. Becoming really comfortable with failure, learning to sleep with it, breathe with it, hold hands with it. When you're OK with failing, you become confident. Everything is OK because failing is the road.

I think, also, though, that it's important to recognise that being sensitive to criticism, real or imagined/future, is a serious barrier for some of us. We are told to grow a thick skin, but how can a person with a thick skin feel anything? So for me, having one or two trusted readers that I don't mind if they see me in my metaphorical underpants, that helps a lot.

I have been reading your posts recently and really, really admiring you for putting yourself out there. Thank you for writing.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:44 pm (UTC)
Oh, I so hear you on the being looked at thing. Apart from academic stuff -- I have a persona for that and I know I know my material -- I shudder from being looked at.
I think of you as incredibly brave. Your ability and willingness to do really scary things -- MMA! Maths degree! astounds me, and you are so honest and opne in your writing, too.
And yes on thin sklns. Being an 'author' -- where that is the public person whose work is, rightly, examined and critiqued -- and being a writer -- meaning the person who stares at a keyboard and writes about imagined lives -- are almost antithetical in some ways.
(no subject) - ex_triciasu - Mar. 16th, 2015 05:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:47 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes on that alternate world.
Or at least that there was some kind of demon net we could drape over our notebooks and computers to keep the writing demons out.
I think you're right about bluff, too. I'm just not very good at it and I tend to assume everyone can see that.
doyoucopy
Mar. 15th, 2015 08:25 pm (UTC)
I feel like everything you've said is exactly how I feel about anything. I struggle being confident with actions I know I'm good at or others recognize me for. I sometimes wonder if it's just because I am afraid of not being perfect. If something isn't perfect then why bother ?? And I'm always questioning myself and wondering how to improve.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes! I empathjise. It's a trap and a very hurtful one. I keep a toy shark over my desk whose job is to bite the writing demons for me: I find this works quite well at least some of the time. Someone I knmow has a tiara which she puts on when she wants to tell herself that she's doing well, and she says it's very construcitve for her. Good wishes!
dorispossum
Mar. 15th, 2015 09:45 pm (UTC)
I think you're just very much more honest than most of us about fear, and I envy that strength. Speaking as one of life's natural cowardly kittens, I think 'confidence' is doing the same job as make up: a very useful veneer that helps negotiate an unforgiving world. Having spent 5 years of my life in a state of acute dread, I can testify that nothing but nothing feels more horrible than fear. Better to squeeze it up small and keep smiling I guess. It works ok(ish) dealing with people (people are so bloody scary!) but I've never managed so well with the physical terrors you describe, which is why you're still skiing in middle age :) and I've not even had the guts to try it once. :( I've only faced down a physical terror once, and then only because the alternative was something worse. (so definitely doesnt count!). I think you do bloody well actually - still skiing and still (thankfully!) writing. And a really good post btw, it resonates. Thank you.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:54 pm (UTC)
Weirdly, I'm better at dealing with real world, now-this-minute fears -- like steep skli slopes, or dentists or first day in a new job -- than I am with the nebulous ones, like 'what if someone is hurt by my writing' or 'if the plane is late will people be angry'. The former *have* to be faced; the latter are in the realm of magical thinking -- I should have been able to avoid them by being a better person or some such.
I'm sorry you had those 5 years: I hope they're over now.
(no subject) - dorispossum - Mar. 17th, 2015 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
dhampyresa
Mar. 15th, 2015 10:52 pm (UTC)
Confidence is also something I struggle with, personally. I've had good results in creating things despite the fear of not being good enough by being very angry and determined at it. Just going "I will write my [number] of words/draw my one-thing-with-colour today, even if it's all crap, even if it kills me, end if it kills me it will be a good death and damn all y'all who think differently".
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:55 pm (UTC)
I like that strategy! That's very constructivbe and imaginative. I worry about being angry, but really it can be a positive and useful emotion sometimes.
sartorias
Mar. 16th, 2015 12:51 am (UTC)
Thanks for writing that.

I don't know what confidence feels like, but I know it when I see it in others. I think the smackdowns for women of a certain age and older are so ingrained that confidence feels like danger, as in what my dad said before he got the belt out, "You're cruisin' for a bruisin--and proved it to be true.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, absolutely this. In all details.
gillpolack
Mar. 16th, 2015 06:10 am (UTC)
I have that need to be perfect, too. One thing I discovered not too long ago though, is if I trust my inner writer, then more things will appear in my work than my conscious mind planned. The work won't be perfect, but it will be a heck more interesting. These days I work towards perfection and do what I can, but I also cede control when it's time. It's harder to tart a work now, but when I've started, the whole process is far less worrying.
la_marquise_de_
Mar. 16th, 2015 04:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, that is good, and it's intersting, too. I've rather gone the other way: I have internalised too many of the negative voices and they get between my thoughts and my fingers. Which is irritating.
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