How to Believe in Yourself

Sun streak illuminating the sea from above; San Francisco dark in foregroundI got a fortune cookie last time that said “Believe in yourself and others will too.” That’s probably true, but it’s not very helpful as advice. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you start? People who already believe in themselves will say, “Just do it. Just believe in yourself.” But this is the same as saying “I don’t know.”

Here’s how to believe in yourself, which is backwards from the fortune cookie: Hang around with people who believe in you, and eventually you will believe in yourself. This is the reason you need a writing group.

And not just any writing group. You need a group like Write to the End: one that’s full of people who believe in you. (You need this even if you already believe in yourself, because we all need to believe in ourselves more than we do.) This is possible within many different writing group structures, but I think it’s easier to find in a structure like ours, one that’s focused on writing together and sharing our work with each other, rather than on critique.

If you want to start you own group, I’d recommend using a writing structure rather than a critique structure. I know people who swear by their critique group, and I’m sure those groups are filled with people who believe in each other. But a new critique group can’t get off the ground unless the members already believe sufficiently in themselves. Most critique groups I have experienced did not have that minimum, and they either self-destructed in an implosion of shame, or they churned members forever and ruined people’s pieces at every meeting.

In our group, we write together, share what we write, and encourage each other to keep going. This is a long process, but it helps people come to believe in themselves.

I wish I could instantaneously take away Casy’s trepidation, because that would turn her into a sun. What can do it? I know of nothing fast. At the group, we are participating in the slow process of transforming ourselves into suns. Every Tuesday, people take my writing seriously. Every Tuesday, people I admire and respect act like it’s normal to write, and act like it matters that I write, and act like what I write matters.

When my arms were injured, Betsy typed up the first draft of my story “Chen.” Sometimes I still boggle over that: Why? Why would anyone possibly do that? (Though I’d do it for any of us, and I bet you would, too.) Also, she sent me an email to say she’s glad I’m planning to publish flash fiction. The logic is inescapable: she believes in me. Other group members do other actions that have the same inescapable conclusion: they believe in me. And it’s working: It is forcing me to believe in myself.

We do this for each other. It peels away the scale, bit by bit. And writing does, too, but we’ll talk about that another time.

I believe in you. Keep going.

This is the process of turning into a sun.

Thank You for Not Smoking

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The other day I happened to overhear a conversation between two people who are not in our writing group, but who are also involved in making cultural products. They spent probably 90% of the conversation in status maneuvers* that involved saying how terrible the market for their work was, how hard it was for them to produce, how badly their current project was going.

I often overhear conversations like this, and they drag me down. It’s like being in a room full of cigarette smoke. Do you remember when people used to smoke inside restaurants? It may have been annoying, but it was normal. But now that I almost never experience cigarette smoke, even if I’m standing outside and somebody starts to smoke, I immediately try to get away.

At our group people sometimes talk about having a hard time on their projects, but always in the context of how they are trying to advance, or as part of asking for help or encouraging others. I never hear people trying to raise their status by saying how much they are struggling or by insulting their own work.

When I overheard that smoky conversation, I realized yet again how very lucky I am to be part of a group that creates a place of fresh air.

* Footnote: You must read Impro by Keith Johnstone (to understand his concept of status, and because it will change the way you write and live). Call your local bookstore and order it right now.