Maybe insecurity is a good thing

Last night I had the privilege of dining with one of the greatest recording artists of our time.  I’m not exaggerating; this man wrote what many of us would say is the iconic song of my generation.  He is still recording, still writing songs, and still performing gigs around the world.  Over dinner, we got to talking about creativity.  He was interested in how I write books; I was interested in how he approaches the writing of a new song.

“I don’t approach anything,” he said.  “I just do it.  And I don’t know how I do it.”

Then he confided in me that, even after decades as a music icon, he still can’t explain how he does it.  “I start off writing a new song with the feeling that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  Or how I did it the last time.”  As he describes it, he doesn’t have a plan.  In fact he’s never had a plan, for his career, or for his next creation.  Everything, he says, just “happens”.  He starts out wanting to try something new, something he’s never done before.  His drive is entirely creative.  His success grew out of that creative drive — not from his sitting down and masterfully plotting out a map to financial success.

So then he asked me, “How did you get so successful?  How do you sit down and write a book?”

“I do it exactly the way you do,” I said.  Every time I sit down to write a book, I feel as if I’m doing it for the first time in my life.  And I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.  And as for my career, I never had a plan either. I just wrote what I wanted to write.  And success somehow found me, I told him.

It was an amazing revelation, to discover that an artist I’ve admired all these years — someone working in an entirely different medium, music — would feel the same insecurities I feel.  That even after the dozens of hit songs he’s recorded, he still questions his ability to write the next song.  What a sense of relief, and mutual recognition, to find out that I’m not the only one who feels like I don’t know what I’m doing.

And yet we manage to keep doing it.  Book after book, or song after song.

He told me how irritated he was when he watched a new songwriter on TV recently, who said he was performing because he “wanted to share his gift with the world.” 

“What bullshit,” my friend said.  “Share his so-called gift with the world?  This is hard work!  This isn’t a gift!”

At the moment, I’m about halfway through the writing of my next book.  I’ve been having more than a few moments of panic.  I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, wondering how I did it the last time. 

Now I know that even one of the best songwriters in the world has self-doubts.

I’m in good company.


19 replies
  1. struggler
    struggler says:

    Insignificant nobodies such as myself assume – wrongly I hope – that superstars in the worlds of literature or music who can just ‘sit down and do it’ must surely be blessed with a talent, dare I say a GIFT, that I don’t believe I have. Hell, I’m damn sure I haven’t. But I do believe I can write a good story and people will pay to read it; the difference is that I am obsessed with the planning of it, the thinking about it, the mechanics of it, that I dare not write anything until that sentence, that paragraph, that chapter and maybe even the whole story has been pretty thoroughly mapped out in my head first. When it’s mapped out (and yes, it’s when, not if) I’ll kind of dictate it to myself because by that time I’ll know the middle and the end before I write the beginning. Now, I remember you saying, Tess, that you just ‘sit down and write’ without truly knowing where the journey will take you, and while of course I believe you I can’t help but think that that’s the difference between leaders and followers, doers and dreamers….the difference is the self-confidence, the self-knowledge that you have, whether you are conscious of it or not, a genuine talent. Which despite your apparent insecurities, you clearly do.

    PS It wasn’t Burt Bacharach was it?

  2. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    zaedok-i think you got it-i never thought of it-but simon&garfunkel were great-i liked thier music much much better than dylan,whom i really never cared for too much-“bridge over troubled water” is an iconic song for me

  3. Rikkesoft
    Rikkesoft says:

    As we all know, it is not just a gift, and it is not just hard work. It is a combination of both.
    And because even the most successful (song)writers don’t always hit bullseye, a bit of luck is part of the recepy too.
    To say it with another popstar’s words:
    “It’s a kind of magic”!

  4. Cynbagley
    Cynbagley says:

    I feel the same way. And then, some essay or poem will bug me as I lie down. And then I have to write it and then… and then…

    I am always amazed at the end product.

  5. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Count me in as one of the insecure authors!

    I do see my writing talent as a gift–but that doesn’t mean using it isn’t work!

    I’m just about to begin writing my next novel and, especially because my first won’t be on the market in the US for another 13 or 14 months, I feel pretty untethered as to how to write the new one.

    How did I do it before? Can I do it again? Will it be as well-received as the first? All these worries plague me, just like you and your musician friend…

    At the same time, I’ve learned to trust my talent, even if I can’t explain how it works. I figure I’ll just…do it like I do it, and things will work out all right!

    How’s that for career planning? 🙂

  6. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    I tell my students that there are two kinds of people in the world: strivers and contenters.

    The contenters do their thing, enjoy it, and are pretty darn relaxed. I think of my parents even before they were retired: dishes done by 7:30 and they’re in front of the tv for the rest of the night. It’s a nice, relaxing life. Happy.

    Then there are the other kinds of people. Whatever they do will never be good enough for them. True, they may have successes along the way, and they’ll have failures along the way. But there’s some restless spirit in them that just won’t let them sit back and relax, content with life. They desperately need to strive to be better, all the while a nagging feeling says it’s not yet good enough.

    I think the contenters are happier people, but if the human race didn’t produce strivers, then we’d never have invented electricity, or had bookstores full of amazing books, or the television full of fascinating choices, or … anything much, except caves and hunting and eating.

    So god bless that nagging feeling of insecurity!

  7. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I would have to say that Stairway to Heaven was THE iconic song of our generation.

    I’m guessing Robert Plant.

  8. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    I’m laughing pretty hard here because that is exactly the way I write my songs. No plan whatsoever! Folks once asked me how I do it and I tell them the same thing — I have no idea. Sometimes I’ll get part of the music first, sometimes the lyrics, sometiimes I’ll start at the end of the song, the middle of the song, or in a rare case, I’ll actually be able to start at the beginning of a song. It can take years to write one (I didn’t write any from 2000-earlier this year because my mom and grandma passed and I was too bogged down in serious depression to be able to do anything), or two of my songs literally took me 20 minutes from the first idea to finished. The only constant is that when I feel like working on a song or have barely started, I have to have a tape recorder with me so I can quickly record and not forget the tune later.

  9. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    P.S. The song I wrote earlier this year after that long drought is probably one of the best songs I’ve ever written, although it was intended as a lullaby for two newborn girls. Adults are curiously attached to it, too.

  10. Meowstopheles
    Meowstopheles says:

    To people who feel this way and whathave you about their personal worth:

    What you say or think or do is important even if no one notices. It’s the ripple effect. Who here knows the impact of something miniscule? You may feel that you do not contribute but believe me in this spatial existing plane we live on this it all has a relevant equation

    That’s why I think of everyone as meta-artists you are passing on a mental ripple anonymously through time and space that is a diamond to another soul or spirit.

    It doesn’t matter that you do not have a “Discography” or a “Bibliography”.

    All that matters is that you keep a thought channels open and keep contributing. Because someone out there in the present/past/future will be grateful.

    People who say “I am insignificant and not talented” Sometimes the most impact you have on something is unseen. Always remember that and realize however you contribute IS important.

    I hope someone thinks about that and try to visualize a ripple of a thought and think about how it might travel to distances unimaginable.

    And then after you think about that start to realize that you are doing things that you have no idea that you are creating or inspiring.

    And then you might realize you are a creator of invisible power in which you can either help or hinder someones life.

    And that goes beyond any book,album or physical creation. That’s why everyone has a part in this great ocean of potential thought we currrently reside in.

    Whether you are a mother of three or a terminally ill child it’s all relevant
    of your time here.

    You are a Quantum Maverick pioneer. I can’t tell you what it is exactly you are doing that’s important.

    That’s why the biggest secret is that everyone is special. And always remember that when you don’t see physical results in your waking days

    The ripple manifests through endless planes. Just keep thinking and dreaming.

    And you will see…..and then you might be saying the same thing I am saying now to someone else who seems lost and seems left out or doesn’t “Feel” important.

    The Ripple, Ladies and Gents. It’s more important than we can possibly comprehend.
    It’s a silent secret. And when it’s all said n done you will be uttering to yourself in the unified ocean “Wow, and I really cared about that?? Geez, what was I thinking” And your laugh will ripple on from dimension to dimension. And that laugh will all be one.

    Believe me, I have thought long hrs about this and come to this conclusion. Everything and everyone is equally important. And if someone tells you otherwise just drop a rock in some water and point to the ripple. And say “That’s US”

    The wave of conscience is pulsating and YOU reading this are more of a creator than you physically can ever fathom.

    If you need a visual aide, just throw something in a tub or a sink and watch it ripple. Realize that is you of every waking and sleeping day of your existence and forever more. You ripple through time and space while you are grounded in your own domain. You are that antenna of manifesting anything.

    I hope that means something to someone.

  11. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i read a book on undersea exploration where the author explains the seamlessness of the oceans and seas and how pouring a glass of water down the drain will distribute its molecules around the world-kind of the same idea-i think “it’s a wonderful life” was in a similar vein-the new film “babel” is sort of in the same camp,but not exactly-hard to describe the plot,but good

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