Monday, 25 February 2013

The Freedom to Write: With Friends Like These...

Once again, I'm discussing ways in which the freedom to write is more what a career in writing is about than either making money or simply writing. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about what constitutes financial freedom to write. Today, I'm talking about something I originally called cultural freedom, but which I now think is probably better called social freedom.

I am an immensely fortunate person in a huge number of ways (as, lest we forget, is anyone wealthy enough to have a personal computer and a stable internet connection), but this is one area in which, even by the standards of the most fortunate writers, I have it particularly good. It comes down to the kind of people I have around me.

My parents are committed liberal intellectuals, and I grew up surrounded by books, in a house that was a temple to literature. From a very early age, my literary efforts have been nurtured and celebrated. If my ambitions and delusions of grandeur were perhaps patronised or condescended to, the overall message was still, 'Keep trying, just don't take any stupid risks'.

Since leaving home, the other main environment I've lived in has been the British university system. My friends and peers are students and academics, and mainly students of the nerdy, fairly serious variety - people I imagine are a lot like my parents were at our age. Among them, my writing and ambition have been met with an automatic respect, and even occasionally (usually in about the second week of November) a modicum of awe.

Few if any of the other writers I know have been so lucky. Almost all of them have stories of the relative or other loved one who refuses to view their writing as anything other than a worthless, self-indulgent hobby; most have suffered at least a few scathing personal attacks for being so irresponsible as to pursue writing careers when they have families to support.

At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, mothers-in-law seem to be the worst culprits, and particularly mothers-in-law to female writers. The refrain is 'How dare you neglect my son's babies to do something so frivolous?!'

And it's a horrible thing to bear. For a true writer, writing isn't an option or a choice. A certain minimum amount of writing is necessary to stop the voices in our heads from overwhelming us. Back in the summer of 2011, I tried to stop in the middle of the first draft of Heaven Can Wait to concentrate on my PhD thesis, and the result was one of the most futile weeks of my life. So a writer faced with one of these bullying relatives (it seems to usually be relatives, one way or another) can either face a storm of family drama or a storm of internal drama.

In severe cases, this can cause serious rifts in families. And as far as I'm concerned, the writer is never at fault. Critics like this are poison, pure and simple. It's worth noting that, in almost all the stories I've been told, however much the critic invokes the names of the children a parent is neglecting (etc. etc.), the actual things the critic wants the writer to do are things for the critic him/herself.

It's a kind of bullying, really. And there's a lot of crap advice about dealing with bullies knocking around. I'm not going to claim that my advice is much better, but it is what's worked for me. The trick, as far as I'm concerned, is this: a personal attack can only make you feel bad if you can't, clearly and with conviction, dismiss it as wrong, both factually and morally.

The ideal is that when someone comes at you with a 'How dare you neglect your children to write?' or a 'How dare you throw away your life chasing this dream?', you are able to say to yourself that, firstly, that's not what you're doing, and secondly, what you are doing is something you should be doing (and, of course, I don't just mean repeating it to yourself as a mantra; I mean feeling a deep conviction in the judgement).

For this to work, you've got to honestly appraise your own life. What obligations do you feel you have? Are you meeting them? Your decision about your obligations is every bit as valid as anyone else's - and usually more so, since you're the one who can see the broadest picture of your life.

Think about it this way; the critics are trying to make you feel guilty. They're not just trying to make you feel generally bad; their underlying, subconscious goal is to make you feel like you owe them, to make you subordinate your will and judgement to theirs. And for you to feel guilty, you've got to feel that there is something that you are guilty of.

If you have a rigorous personal ethic that you stick to, no bully or critic is ever going to make you feel guilty - the only way you'll feel guilty is if someone points out to you a way in which your actions are unacceptable by your own standards. Get this right, and you'll be able to see these horrible, unsupportive, negative assholes as exactly what they are - people with no power over you, desperately scrabbling for your help.

This is all sounding a bit self-helpy, I know, but it's worked for me generally when facing bullies and it's how I would respond when a critic like this turned up. I'm not, by any manner of means, saying you should turn a deaf ear to criticism, but just as you would with feedback on your first drafts, be aware of the source when deciding what to take on board and what to reject. Your own judgement is your best ally, and it's a lot easier to deal with drama queens from a position of conviction than from one of guilt.

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