21 March 2007

On Negativity and A Writing Life

Since I posed the question on David Anthony Durham's blog, "Why do writers obsess on the negative?", I rummaged around on my bookshelf and pulled out John Gardner's "On Becoming A Novelist". Right in the preface Gardner had some interesting things to say about writers and the negative.

"The whole world seems to conspire against the young novelist. The young man or woman who announces an intention of becoming an M.D. or an electrical engineer or a forest ranger is not immediately bombarded with well meaning explanations of why the ambition is impractical, out of reach, a waste of time and intelligence." I see this everyday in our schools, as they try and remold my teenager into someone else, someone more socially acceptable to them. He wants to be a musician; they discuss the electrician shortage and the opportunity for high paying jobs. Not going to college? Then be a welder. 'Dreams and passion don't pay the rent, or put food on the table,' he was told by one counselor. Maybe not, but they feed the soul instead of choke the life out of it.

In discussing The Writer's Nature, Gardner talks of the influence others have on a writer, both positive and negative. "In my own experience, nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. To most people, there is something special and vaguely magical about writing, and it is not easy for them to believe someone they know—someone quiet ordinary in many respects—can really do it."

Writing is not a high visibility occupation, or a high paying one. (For most of us.) The implication is that it's almost un-American to write instead of working a high paying job. Everyone else had to give up their dreams, why can't you? What's wrong with you? Grow up.

Gardner explores how well meaning family and friends press social and family obligations on the writer until the writer believes he is a failure if he can't meet everyone's expectations. He is told these other obligations are more important than writing, than the obligation to himself. The subtle negativity is absorbed until the writer believes it and repeats it back. Gardner goes on to talk about how the writer goes through various stages of growth and compensation for the negative, and either become successful by his own standards, or gives up.

The psychology of the writer is of concern to Gardner, and he speaks flippantly of how most happy, well-adjusted children do not become writers, and that novelists "learned to depend on himself" and to "look inward for approval and support".

"One often finds novelists are people who learned in childhood to turn, in times of distress, to their own fantasies or to fiction, the voice of some comforting writer, not to human beings near at hand. This is not to deny that it also helps if a novelist finds himself with one or more loved ones who believe in his gift and work."

So is this true for you? Do you have a support system that helps you overcome the negativity rays and keeps you focused on your goal? Is there a balance between being a writer and outside expectations? How much do friends and family influence our perceptions of self as writer? I've gotten my nickel's worth out of my philosophy degree, now it's your turn.

5 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

I was the girl who told one counsellor that my life was mine and I didn't need his advice, thank you very much. "And if anything else fails, I can always become a counselor and get paid for telling people bullshit." He wrote an angry letter to my parents but got back more than he'd bargained for. My father destests the German school system (too bad we aren't allowed to homeschool here or I'd never seen the inside of a school building).

My independence of course led to me being bullied, and I withdrew into myself, but it had the advantage that the only person I care about is my father (well, my mother, too, while she was alive) and the rest of the relatives - and the world - can wipe my behind with their advices and attitudes. And my father supports my writing.

I think my selfdoubts about the quality of my work come from reading too many good books, lol.

Constance said...

Gabriele, I wish I had been that brave when I was younger. Maybe it wouldn't have taken me this long to figure out what I wanted to do in my life.
I'm lucky in that my best friend is my biggest supporter - and a kick butt beta reader besides. :)

There are far too many good books out there for my comfort... but I'm writing the stories I want to tell, in the way I want to write, so I'm pretty happy with them.

Poetry is a whole 'nother animal, however...

David Anthony Durham said...

Hello. The guidance counselor thing... Why are so many of them so crap? I was a very poor student in high school, skipped a lot, drank too much, didn't buy into the whole popularity-based culture, and rarely engaged with my coursework. I did read a ton, though, Camus, Gide, Hesse, for example. But I read outside of class. I wasn't a bad student because I was stupid. I was bad because I was bored, impatient, unchallenged. About the only place I felt comfortable was with the weirdoes in the art room, a place I spent a great deal of time.

My guidance counselor only saw the stupid part, though. She urged my mother to switch me into a vocational program and warned her that I'd already shot my chances of getting into college. My future options were very limited, and might best include a career in... oh, welding, for example. (No slight intended on welders, by the way. I just doubt I’d be any good at it or that it’s the career that would give me the most satisfaction.)

How many levels was she wrong on? Forget the fact that I'm on my fourth novel and I'm published in eight languages. Forget that I'm an Associate Professor on a short tenure track. Forget that I went to grad school on a full fellowship. Forget, even, that I graduated college cum laude four years after leaving high school. I go further back than all that to the year after high school, when I dipped my toe into college courses and found 1) a wonderful teacher who demanded the best of me and 2) found that a few courses in, with a few good grades, and I was easily accepted into the University of Maryland. What was the big deal about my life having been decided by poor performance at 17? She was wrong on all counts.

By the way, Gabriele, such experiences are just part of why my young kids are being home schooled. (I'm glad it's legal here, even if it requires jumping through a lot of hoops.) They're doing wonderfully. They read well above their level, they listen to books on tape every night, they write and draw and study history and science with what's still an open-eyed enthusiasm. I know we'll make mistakes as parents and the home schooling thing won't always be easy, but I've no doubt at all that we know more about what's good for our kids than the system does.

Okay, enough of that. It does touch a nerve, though, even all these years later. As to support, well my mother would've loved for me to go a traditional route, to write on the side and only get serious about it after all the financial stability issues were taken care of. I think in many ways she deferred many of her dreams - and saw that as the norm - so thought I probably should too. But, she also wanted to believe in me and did believe in me, enough that she somewhat reluctantly was a source of support. Her help and my own arrogance got me through grad school and through two novels, but I didn't write a publishable novel until my wife threw her support behind me completely.

When I wrote GABRIEL'S STORY my wife, Gudrun, was pregnant with our first child and working in telesales for a French ski-vacation company. She supported us while I went to work full time on the novel. She read what I'd written at the end of each day, and she often helped nudge me back on course when I started to veer off track. There was no negativity in her. She believed, for whatever reason, that it was perfectly reasonable for me to have a career as a writer and she was willing to do everything she could to see it happen.

It did. The novel was accepted about a month after our daughter was born, and the books have continued to come ever since. I owe her a great deal, and I honestly believe that talent and ambition can rarely stand alone. We can all benefit from support - not from the whole world or from the government or anything - but from at least a small handful of people who are secure enough in themselves to support us as we dream big. That’s as important to find as any good writing teacher, agent or editor.

Constance said...

Thank you for the thoughtful commentary, David. A lot to think about. I often wonder if counselors are not really concerned with what is best for each individual kid. Their case load is too heavy to do anything meaningful. It is far easier to say, if you're not college material, then you must go into vocational education. Don't even get me started on what has been done to the arts in this country. If you're a kid who is into music, visual or performing arts, forget it. No encouragement for you, just lectures on having a real job' to support your 'hobby'. It carries over into adult life, the defending your passion as worthwhile and more than just a time filler. At least for me, that's where the deep seated negativity comes from.

I am thrilled your wife supports you so fully. It makes such a difference knowing someone believes in you and your work. Pass on my thank yous. :) Ditto on homeschooling. Being a single parent it would be darn near impossible, but I've thought of taking my kids out of the cesspool that is high school, for many of the reasons you stated in your personal experiences. The school system here is not encouraging to homeschooling. I got grief when I took my kids out of school for 3 days to go to Denver and tour museums and the zoo. Whose kids are they, anyhow? Life isn't about sit down, shut up, and bring a number 2 pencil.

All it takes is one person, one teacher to make a difference for someone. I owe my expanded horizons to my high school art teacher, who used to hand me books on Nietzsche and Sartre with the caveat "we'll discuss them when you're done reading, think of questions to ask me". Then there was my undergraduate philosophy professor who always had time to listen as I floundered through personal and professional philosophical inquiry. I teach philosophy at the local community college on occasion, and try to be available to my students for class related or personal issues - I want to repay the debt I owe those two men.

Writers and artists are the most supportive groups of people I know. Maybe because they understand what it was like to be the outsider, the 'weirdo' consigned to the fringes because they dared dream of something different.

Scott Oden said...

I know we had a guidance counselor at the high school I graduated from, but I don't recall ever talking to this person -- I can't even recall if it were a he or she. I was a painfully average student. Not good enough to be on anyone's radar screens, but not bad enough to be, either. I did only enough to get by, participated in very few outside activities, and generally kept my nose stuck in a book for four years. I had five or six friends and we would all get together to play D&D or go to movies. They knew I wanted to be a writer, but only a couple realized I was serious about it. One went on to be a comic book artist; the other was, last I heard, a police detective.

While I wasn't openly discouraged by my parents, I also wasn't openly encouraged. They were all for me following my dreams, so long as those dreams included benefits, a generous vacation package, and ample opportunity for overtime.

My ex-wife thought it was all Really Cool. Keep in mind, though, that she was 17 when we married. A few years into the marriage that Really Cool feeling wore off.

My friends, Kris and Wayne, Darren, Josh and "Fiona" (not her real name, but her preferred online moniker), they were, and still are, my prime sources of encouragement. Others have come and gone, but they are the ones who remain ever-willing to prod me on -- sometimes when I myself don't even want to continue.

Now, of course, my family is all for my being a writer. While I'm grateful for their support, the support that really counts is that which you receive in the bad times. That's the support I cherish most.