–David Bartlett

I think writing takes a huge amount of self confidence. I know how uncertain I felt when I started in politics after I had announced I was running and was raising money. I think writing takes even more of a drive, because it must be such a lonely effort. ¿Es verdad?

—David Bartlett, Tucson, Arizona

Actually, David, I think it’s probably not an accident there aren’t a lot of writers in politics, though Jack Kennedy, with a leg up from Theodore Sorenson, did pretty well and I think Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father is an extremely well written book. It’s interesting you bump self confidence up close to the word uncertain. The word drive is there in your question, too. Maybe we need to sort these things into separate camps.

I wonder, first of all, if self confidence might be a euphemism for hubris for both politicians and writers. Politicians have to have a pretty high opinion of themselves to think they should be elected to lead people and make decisions about critically important aspects of their lives. They probably have a deep down belief they have the right gifts and convictions and personality for the job. Writers have to have the analagous belief that they can write very well and with something entertaining or meaningful or insightful to say, and that’s assuming an awful lot. Is that self confidence in either case or is it more like belief in an aspect of the self?

But just the fact that you said you felt great uncertainty as you launched your political career suggests some lack of self assurance that’s not really a bad trait for anyone embarking on any kind of new venture. After all, there’s a risk involved. Doing anything new means learning new things and making mistakes, and I’m guessing that most neophyte politicians and writers—if they have any self awareness (not all do)—are legitimately scared at the outset because what they’re venturing is pretty big. Many of them probably have those middle of the night visitations of something like terror—what the heck am I doing and can I really pull this off or am I basically a fool?

Let’s posit this, too, though. Politics is a much more public profession than writing. The job descriptions take very different personalities. Both politicians and writers have to be gluttons for work, but politicians have to feed off a connection with people that allows them to tolerate the boredom and repetition and bad food and bad hours of campaigns. They also get regular props from people as well as slings and arrows. Writers, on the other hand, are constantly hunting for words and populating their pages with imaginary people instead of shaking the hands of real ones, and most of their work is solitary if you don’t count the time spent trying to sell it, which is limited, but wearing a very different hat. (I’ve made this comparison. For writers, the selling part is like a person getting an M.D. and then having to perform as a circus bareback rider before being certified to practice medicine.) Some writers are pretty good at book tours and interviews, which require some of the same skills that politicians need, but it’s only a temporary thing, and most are more than eager to retreat to their desks.

I’m interested in your word lonely to describe a writer’s life. I think that maybe sounds like a politician talking. Here’s the truth: I love being alone working with words and with scenes and people in my head. I don’t find it lonely at all. While there’s a part of me that likes to be social and even enjoys a bit of the buzz that comes with a reading that goes well or an above average performance in the classroom, I need a lot of solitude. It’s energizing for me in a way that people are energizing for those who are more naturally outgoing. It’s also true that a lot of a writer’s social life is mental notetaking. I don’t think it’s usually intentional but they aren’t really off duty in social situations. They’re observing and being stimulated in various sensory ways. It can be both exciting and draining. I think a writer like Gabriel García Márquez has had things sorted out pretty well—dedicating certain hours of his day to writing, and then going out with friends both to socialize and find new material.

I don’t think we should confuse being alone with loneliness. It’s more likely that the struggle for a writer is to keep the discipline of work and not chafe with boredom and frustration during the times when the ideas and words just aren’t coming. During those times, it can seem it would be better just to go out and do something with people. But I don’t think that’s an impulse of loneliness though it does get us to your five-dollar-word: drive. Not only does a writer have to have a lot of drive to put enough words together to make whole books; that writer has to have the drive to push through dry spells and rejection and disappointment and invisibility. That’s where the self belief is necessary. And it’s hard not to be a writer if you’re not tenacious.

Though it plays out in public rather than in private, politicians have that tenacity, too. I’ve never seen anyone who had more drive than Hillary Clinton in the primary season in 2008. It was extraordinary. She just wouldn’t quit and kept coming up with new ways to try to avoid defeat. In that way, I’d say she has a lot in common with many, many writers who’ve kept working and working and working with very little to show in the way of publication or book sales in spite of the high quality of their work. That’s not self confidence and it’s not loneliness. It’s drive and commitment and a need to write as a form of sustenance, What it is really is an identity with the vocation of writing that means they can’t stay who they are if they don’t do it. And writers have this strange conundrum. It’s not like trying to make it in the NBA. You can keep trying your whole life. You don’t have this window where all your gifts are aligned, peak, and then go into a clear descent and the passion disappears. You can keep doing this dumb thing forever and, in that sense, it really is a whole lot like politics.


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