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.