Jazz singer Helen Merrill talks about meeting Bill Evans in the mid-1950’s: “There was an enormous amount of talent in New York City and we naturally gravitated toward one another. We were both sure of ourselves, and the same time, painfully insecure.”
It always surprises me to hear of artists at the level of Bill Evans being “painfully insecure,” but truth be told, aren’t we all? Especially artists, who are often at the beck and call of a fickle muse. And yet submitting a manuscript or trying to display at an art gallery or putting yourself up on the stage at the jazz club requires a high degree of self-confidence, a great deal of nerve and self-assurance that your work is worthy. We all have the voice on one shoulder that shouts “Get out there!” and one on the other that tries to drag us down—“Who do you think you are?!” Add to that friends or colleagues who accuse us of arrogance because we dare to believe in ourselves and it makes for a pretty interesting drama, the conversation between "sure of ourselves" and "painfully insecure."
For whatever reason, I’ve been hit recently by a wave of self-doubt, wondering whether anything I’ve done in my life was important or useful to someone or worthy of attention. Worse yet, whether anything I’ve yet to do is even worth considering. I’ve always been pretty clear that Miles Davis wasn’t going to invite me into his band or Random House seek me out for a book contract, but I’ve had just enough confidence in both my chosen work and my ability to do it well that it fueled the energy needed to get up to plan the next class, give the next workshop, write the next book and occasionally, perform the next concert. Though the end of the matter is a deep humility that doesn’t invite the small self to the opening, that ego is absolutely necessary to the process and needs to refuse the constant pinching and prodding of those “I can’t! I’m not good enough!” voices.
For example, I’m trying to pitch my new book on Jazz and Social Justice to the big world of literary agents and established publishers and have a few little nibbles and a growing list of rejections. So after waiting a month or so to hear from the nibbles, I need to gird myself to jump back into the fray, with renewed energy and confidence. I know this is a worthy project and I know I’m the right person to do it and instead of assuming a humble posture “This book hopes to contribute…”, I believe it will be both more honest and effective to say: “This book needs to be published—now!” I dreamt my new cover letter last night and woke up to immediately write it down.
This is a good sign. Dictation in dreams is a letter from the larger self that is beyond doubt and confidence, an affirmation from the other world that indeed this is waiting to be born in the world and needs your small, arrogant, confident, doubting self to get it out there. More devastating than investing too much ego in the venture is refusing the call altogether.
And so I pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again, knowing in my bones that the world will do just fine without hearing anything else from me, that nothing significant will change because of what I do, but acting as if it’s absolutely necessary that I do it.
Literary agents, take note! I’m your man!