She had not told her parents that she had written the book….She didn’t even send [them] one. If that had noticed its existence, they didn’t mention it.
Most beginning writers intend to impress, placate, or shock imaginary parents. Real ones are a different matter.
I ran across that quote, from A. S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman, maybe seven or eight years ago, and it stuck in my mind. (If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know that I’m a huge Byatt fan and actually got to be on a BBC radio program with her once.)
It came back to my mind when I was finishing Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. This is my third and final post about the book, and that particular kind of fear–described both by Byatt and by Keyes–is the kind that struck closest to home for me.
A quick recap of my previous two posts about the book: Keyes points out that writers produce bad, unclear, over-wordy work for at least two reasons: they want to sound intelligent and are afraid that plain and straightforward prose won’t accomplish this; and they are afraid their thoughts will be rejected or jeered at, so they obscure their ideas in impenetrable prose.
I’ve certainly seen both these fears in operation, but they’re not my particular Waterloo.
This one is.
Anxiety about reactions by others can cripple a writer. When expressed at all, this fear is usually articulated as, “What will people think of me when they read what I’ve written?” But it’s not “people” we’re most scared of. It’s specific individuals….
I often ask writing students to picture privately the person whose response to their writing concerns them the most. Usually it’s a spouse or parent. Sometimes it’s another relative, a friend, or an old teacher….Whoever’s opinion worries us the most is our “censor in chief.”
Keyes points out that this fear is not unfounded, because good writing deals with human relationships, and what we know about human relationships comes from…our own. With people who are close to us. And will read what we write.
To write well, he tells us, we
must write honestly; not in the literal but in the emotional sense….To touch their readers’ feelings, writers must first improve reception of their own, then set up loud-speakers so that others can listen in. Doing this creates potential problems….Emotionally candid writing can jeopardize important relationships. Any ongoing relationship is based on some discretion. Writing demands revelation. Reconciling this conflict puts writers in a literary-human bind: wanting to be open yet not wanting to offend those they care about. This is a fundamental courage point.
I will say right now that I have no idea how to resolve this conflict. Keyes provides a few quotes from other writers who have faced it: William Styron (“I was half paralyzed by the awareness that my parents and my sisters…would read whatever version of their life came out of my typewriter”); John Fowles, who rewrote one of his novels only after his parents died because he didn’t want them to read it the way he wanted to write it; Allen Ginsberg, who never intended to publish “Howl” (“I wouldn’t want my daddy to see what was in there”); Gordon Lish (“I don’t see how you can write fiction honestly and ably without interfering with serious relationships”).
Well, that’s a lot of help. Particularly since I actually don’t want my private life to resemble the personal relationships of any of the writers Keyes quotes.
So Keyes didn’t give me any answers. But the two chapters where he talks about this kind of fear were revelatory for me, because I’ve spent years complaining to my closest confidants that I never can find the time to do the kind of writing closest to my heart. I love the history I write, and I get a particular kind of satisfaction from writing curricula. I don’t want to quit doing these things. But there are other books I want to write–and have wanted to write–and can’t seem to get to.
Now I know why. I pictured the particular reactions of particular readers, as Keyes suggests, and it became clear: I’m not writing those books because I’m afraid of what those readers will say.
Let me quickly absolve my parents–of complete responsibility, anyway. All writers worry about what their parents will say, and the closer the relationship is, the more we worry. That’s a universal. (“Parents,” Keyes writes, “are the most ubiquitous censors in chief for writers at every level.”)
But I’ve discovered that I have a much wider circle of potential censors.
This is an eye-opener.
I’ve got no solutions. And while fears are always worse than realities, I think my fears are pretty solidly based in fact. (Hey, I’ve gotten jumped on for being ASSOCIATED with a book that some of my regular readers didn’t like, and I didn’t even write it.)
On the other hand, I have suddenly been able to work on those long-neglected manuscripts. I’m behind my deadline on the history series and barely keeping up with the language curricula, so I haven’t abandoned them; don’t worry. But all at once I’ve found some time that didn’t exist before, and I’ve used it to write words that I couldn’t get out, two months ago.
Sometimes looking at a problem with two eyes is the closest you get to a solution.