Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shame and self censorship

Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for fiction yesterday for her most recent book, so different interviews and reviews are popping up in the blogs I read. Here's an interview from several months ago on Rumpus.

One especially interesting part of the interview is about the funny reactions people have to writers:

ES: I really didn’t tell people as I grew older that I wanted to be a writer—you know, because they look at you with such looks of pity, and ask what you’ve published—whatever, I just couldn’t stand that. And so I didn’t really tell people.
Q: Do you think there are some small, finite, predictable conversations when one says they’re a writer?
ES: I think so, yes. . . . There’s the first response, “Well, I’ve always wished that I had the time to be a writer,” and that’s sort of like, OK… and then the second response is, “What have you published?” and the third response, which has always sort of appalled me, is that people will say, “Well, you know that very few people are ever successful at that.” And so it carries a lot of negativity.

This reminds me of how much I have let myself be nagged by the anticipation of these negative responses. I can imagine people rolling their eyes at meeting an aspiring writer, and so I tend to hide it, and, even worse, I tend not to even BE it. Part of the reason it took me until much later in life than I wanted to really attempt this was a fear of what people would say--expecting they would say the kinds of things Strout summarizes above and not being able to deal with it. I was ashamed of that feeling of exposure and I essentially censored myself. (There were other factors, too.)

What's partly going on is a feeling of illegitimacy. It's not only that other people don't see the work as legitimate but that I myself tend not to see the work as legitimate. I buy into the presumption that writer = published writer. There's a built-in tension stemming from the basic laws of physics--the desire to write precedes publication. The intervening time is a period of illegitimacy if you define legitimacy by publication--or even worse by publishing well enough to be making a living.

The healthy and reasonable thing to do is to recalibrate our sense of where legitimacy as writers comes from--to not tie our sense of self-worth to publication. The journey is its own reward and all that. But for some reason--probably faulty wiring or something--we seem better adapted as a species to living and working through shame than to doing the healthy and reasonable thing.

1 comment:

Emma said...

I've discovered you via Nathan Bransford's blog, and am very much enjoying having a look around yours.

This post in particular struck a chord with me.

Not too long ago I attended a conference put on by a writer's guild. I was terrified by all of the 'proper' writers in the room at first, thinking that they would find me out - 'She isn't published? - IMPOSTER!'

But then I realised that I was surrounded by people who weren't so different from me. Everyone in the room was at a different stage in their career, and we were all there to learn how to get better at what we do.