On Validation

0849772fdfc614ba5b0fd66d5b9ef808_400x400I co-lead a monthly writers group as part of the Center for Faith and Work, and before we break off into small groups to workshop our pieces, one of the members leads us in a discussion on a topic centered around the writing life. Last month, Brooke Obie, author of Book of Addis: Cradled Embers (Vol 1), led a talk on validation, a subject that has been coming up for me from a few different directions as I wait for word from my agent on a new manuscript, my birthday approaches, and I take a procrastination break from a new piece I’m working on to write this post.

A few weeks ago, during a Saturday cable watching marathon I stumbled on the movie 5 to 7. The film, about a young writer’s affair with a married French woman nine years his senior, ended with a comment I’ve been pondering since: “Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader.” The writer’s reader was his now former lover, and the point he was making was that whoever the writer’s reader is, it is her or his validation that matters most.

As I noted in a previous post about this quote, my reader often changes. Sometimes it’s a client, a boss, an editor, an agent, social media followers. Sometimes my reader is me. And for the purposes of the piece I am pushing out into the world for this reader, their validation is everything.

Brooke directed us to unpack validation itself and how it shapes what and why we write. Here are the questions she invited us to ask ourselves:

  • What role does validation play in your writing?
  • Who are you seeking validation from?
  • How has/does rejection impact(ed) your feelings of validity as a writer?
  • How do you determine which criticism is valid?
  • What are your goals as a writer? (What and who shaped these goals?)
  • When do you feel most validated as a writer?
  • Have you ever felt the presence of God when you’re writing, or felt that you’re “in the zone” when you’re writing? Does this feeling validate your writing/make you feel valid as a writer?
  • What fears do you have that undermine your feelings of validation? How do you deal with these fears?
  • What are your intentions for your writing? What do you hope to achieve? If you achieved it would you feel validated as a writer?

Is it possible to ever feel validated as a writer? Is validation-seeking in and of itself a trap–an indication of a hole that can’t be filled with the expected markers?

Both J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth Gilbert have remarked that validation in the form of bestselling status doesn’t quell the desire to write, or the hope for validation that’s stripped from the expectations, jealousy, and effusive praise that can come with success. And recently, the author of In Her Shoes and other bestselling books Jennifer Weiner bared her heart and admitted her jealousy in a now deleted Facebook post when another writer’s book  was chosen over hers for Oprah’s Book Club–a validation that has eluded her for now.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, also a bestselling author, has written about finding validation in the work itself. In a poignant post on her blog, she expressed the importance of maintaining perspective on the accomplishment that completing a piece of writing is: “…I’d internalized so much shame about how my books had performed, that I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”

Validation is such a personal quest, determined by ever-shifting internal and external factors, that even trying to unpack it feels bottomless. I think that’s why I appreciate having the above-noted questions handy–a way to spot-check when the insecurities rise, and a reminder to focus on why I write in the first place. I hope the questions are helpful to you too.

We Need More Empathy in the PC/Cultural Appropriation Debate

On September 8th, Lionel Shriver, author of a dozen novels including 2005 Orange Prizewinner We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech about identity politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival. During her talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an author, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Youth Without Borders, walked out. Abdel-Magied says she did so because Shriver was making light of the issues that have given rise to the frustration and ire many have around cultural appropriation.

Here’s a synopsis of both positions: Shriver (pictured left) argued that fiction is inherently about appropriating cultures and experiences of all kinds, and exploiting them to serve the story. It’s about wearing other people’s hats, she said. To drive the point home, Shriver wore a sombrero as she made her argument.

Abdel-Magied countered that Shriver’s “but it’s fiction” excuse is obtuse and insensitive. She pointed out that the peoples whose cultures and identities are routinely appropriated so rarely get a chance to tell their own stories to a mass audience because of a racist dominant culture and the enduring legacy of colonialism that shuts out or marginalizes these voices. Abdel-Magied added, this same racial prejudice and colonial history leads to many an author writing myopic and/or offensive fiction about an experience or people s/he knows nothing about.

I can identify with some of the frustrations Abdel-Magied and Shriver expressed, but, mostly, I’m frustrated by the demonstrated lack of empathy on Shriver’s part, and to a lesser extent, Abdel-Magied’s.

In her speech, Shriver claimed that a writer’s attempts to inhabit and portray the experiences of others who aren’t like them are inherently empathetic. She went on to argue that effort itself should be applauded, and that failure to get it right should be accepted as collateral.

“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given,” she said. “But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.”

Shriver expressed zero sensitivity to what it feels like to be the one whose life has been, and is being, entered (over and over again); and she demonstrated no curiosity or care about the stakes of failure. She did not mention the fact that the authors of color are reviewed far less by the New York Times, and other publications, than their white counterparts. Nor did she discuss the fact that far fewer writers who aren’t white even get the chance to be published.

Whether she failed to communicate this above hoped for sensitivity, or neglected to note the facts about identity disparity in publishing because she does not or cannot identify with the experience of seeing her story become more profitable when a white person’s name is on it, or because she doesn’t believe these factors are relevant to her thesis, or because she has little to no respect for those who raise objections about their cultures and identities being misrepresented is the debate.

As, Abdel-Magied aptly articulates:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

But part of Abdel-Magied’s response irks me too.

Though I wish she had stayed to listen to Shriver’s whole talk so she could assess the argument in real time in its entirety and participate in a post-lecture Q&A to engage Shriver in a face to face, I respect her decision to walk out. As she explained in her essay, for her, staying implied agreement with–and legitimizing–what Shriver was saying. Leaving in the middle, Abdel-Magied wrote, was her statement of resistance. I get it. There are times when you just can’t grin and bear.

My issue with Abdel-Magied’s reaction is that, while she chose to exercise her right to exit the room mid-lecture, she made blanket assumptions about those who opted to stay and hear Shriver out. Deciding the chuckles coming from the audience amounted to “reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern,” she labeled the audience “compliant.”

It’s a seemingly small judgment, but it bears the whiff of insensitivity she ascribes to Shriver’s position. It asserts there is only one right way to react to a point of view you disagree with, and that the same reaction means the same thing for different people.

Abdel-Magied describes a packed room, and people laughing in complicity at Shriver’s obtuse remarks. We don’t know if some of the chuckles in that full house were uncomfortable, or whether there were people who were having sharply whispered conversations of dissent outside of her sightline and earshot, or if there were attendees who were quietly reserving their judgment until Shriver’s talk was over. Abdel-Magied doesn’t know either, all she can do is guess.

When it comes to discussions about representing identity, particularly in writing, merely guessing is one of the main problems.

Yes, as Shriver lectured, writing necessitates guessing at the emotions of characters in situations the writer may or may not have experienced. But good writing requires we add to guesswork research, close observation, deep contemplation, the feedback of generous souls who will read or listen to early drafts, and, eventually, professional editors and fact-checkers. And even when a writer feels s/he has done this due diligence to authentically write a story or character that is personally foreign, s/he can still get it wrong because racial and cultural biases are so deeply embedded in Western, and global, culture.

This doesn’t mean anyone should steer clear of trying to write about certain topics or people, it just means we should try harder to humbly listen to those who have had an experience we haven’t–especially when there is overwhelming consensus among said group that we have misrepresented it.

Furthermore, if we truly want to tell the stories of people and places and cultures we don’t personally know, and if we want to see them told well, we will have to make way for writers who are intimate with the experience to tell their stories themselves. And we can’t be satisfied with just one or two writers, but many. So many we can’t associate a group with a trend or type anymore and push it into a pigeonhole.

Most writers don’t have control over our publication destiny, let alone another’s, but those who have written bestsellers, or have publishing experience have some leverage. Whether it’s the relationships necessary to put in a good word with an agent/editor; or reading the work of an aspiring writer telling a story we want to try and offering feedback, there are ways to support a diversity of writers and stories if that’s what we truly want.

Conversely, those of us frustrated with seeing our stories exploited and appropriated, and tired of being dismissed by the dominant culture for expressing our pain and anger about said appropriation, should be cognizant that our fellows in the struggle have the right to express their dissatisfaction their way. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached non-violence and Malcolm X advocated a “by any means necessary” approach to combating racism in America. Both were assassinated.

It’s not about methodology. It’s about compassion, and a continual commitment to seeing past ourselves.

For example, Shriver said, “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”

While what she says is true on its face, I wonder if she has deeply considered why and how we got to the point where membership in an identity group means so much. Though white Americans, for example, may not think about or be aware of racism as much as a person of color might, they exist in a hyper-racialized nation along with everyone else in the country, and experience certain aspects of life in way that vastly differs from a person of color’s experience. Whether Shriver believes it or not, racial identity means as much to whites as it does to people of other races.

Membership of a larger group is not the sum of an identity, but in a world that sorts and shelves people based on identity groups–and specifically disadvantages those outside the dominant group–these memberships have shaped experiences and existences for generations. They have become culture and memory and life, providing spiritual and material refuge to those who leverage the power of their shared community. If history were different and prejudice non-existent, these identities might be treated incidentally, but they aren’t.

What if, concurrently, Abdel-Magied considered that Brisbane’s giving Shriver a speaking spot may not have been borne of an intention to personally harm her, or endorse a point of view she disagreed with? What if she moved past her assumptions of what her fellow attendees were thinking of her when she left, or why they stayed, and instead engaged a few of them after the event about how they felt about the proceeding?

Our collective lack of empathy keeps us trapped in our polemicist poles, paralyzed by the fear that if we acknowledge the merits of another’s position we will cede holy ground, unable to progress. Ironically, it also leaves us vulnerable to even more egregious appropriation, and makes for bad writing people think is good just because they tried. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it leaves us pretty much where we started: frustrated and isolated, the gap between our understanding, care, and consideration of each other only widening.

Writing Can Lower Your Blood Pressure

medical_writingHere’s a story at odds with the stereotype of the depressed, ornery writer: psychology professor James Pennebaker has done research that shows that people are less depressed after writing for just 20 minutes a day for three days.

In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, excerpted on nymag.com, Dr. Susan David, PhD writes of Pennebaker’s work:

In each study, Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.

Dr. David makes clear the results are not only tied to putting finger to keyboard or pen to paper, but about doing the work of expressing yourself. “Talking into a voice recorder, for example, can deliver the same results,” she writes. She adds:

But after showing up, there’s another critical aspect of agility: Stepping out. Deeper analysis over the years shows that unlike brooders or bottlers, or those who let it all hang out in big venting rants, the writers who thrived the most began to develop insight, using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” In the process of writing, they were able to create the distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler and the feeling, that allowed them to gain a new perspective, unhook, and move forward.

Not sure what the book has to say about how writing on deadline or writing professionally impacts mental health, but you can read the full excerpt to find out.

Who Do You Write For?

I will promise you this. Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader_peoplewhowriteThe movie 5 to 7 ends with this quote as a way to explain the muse behind the main character’s bestselling first novel. It got me thinking: what and who were the main catalysts for different stories I’ve written?  They’ve never been the same, but they have been there. I wonder how my story/ies might be different if I changed “the reader.”

Is this quote true for you?

Jessica Crispin on Fear & Writing

In the week after she shuttered her litblog Bookslut, Jessica Crispin shared her frank opinions on the publishing industry and how fear among writers cripples improvement with TheGuardian.com and New York Magazine‘s Vulture.com. Read them for an honest, acerbic assessment of, among other things, what it can mean to have a literary career today.

Jessica Crispin of Bookslut on Fear in Writing_PeopleWhoWrite

Isabel Allende Starts All Her Books on January 8th

Isabel Allende on her writing process via Lenny newsletter_peoplewhowrite

If there’s a balance between being bullish about writerly goals/self-imposed deadlines and patient pacing, Isabel Allende seems to have mastered it. Check out the author’s interview on Lenny about her new book and her writing process.

Bowie Bonds for Writers?

bowiecomputer

David Bowie in 1996, a year before Bowie Bonds were introduced

Here’s another kind of speculative fiction, or non-fiction for writers to consider: packaging your current and future earning potential into a security bond investors can buy and sell–or at least thinking of your work (past, present, and future) as valued commodities.* In 1997, David Pullman, an investment banker working with David Bowie, created financial instruments known as “Bowie Bonds” to “securitize [Bowie’s] back catalog”. An article on Phillymag.com explains how the bonds, which acted as a loan against future payments, worked: “Artists would get a lump sum of money now without having to wait for future royalties.”

 

The bond sounds like the advance traditionally published writers negotiate as part of their book contract–except writers would presumably have to pay the money back if their future royalties/earning potential could not cover the initially projected value. Since most contracts don’t require return of the advance if a book doesn’t earn its advance, a bond like this would not make sense for most writers, but it’s an interesting model to explore as digital tools make the publishing and book selling industries more financially transparent and empower writers to take more ownership of the business of writing. Moreover, the bond taps into the way some artists already value their art.

Upon cursory rumination, the Bowie Bond seems like an instrument or model only really famous or financially successful writers can begin to entertain, but young creatives have been making calculated risks based on their art as long as art has been appreciated. One of the things that struck me as I watched the film Straight Outta Compton was how both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre walked away from millions at at least two points in their careers to either maintain their safety or avoid becoming further entangled in strangulating contracts.

There was a power in their exit because it spoke to their faith that they could reinvent themselves. They were essentially betting on their talent and work ethic, and their future ability to monetize them. Their belief in their capacity to recreate and improve upon their past success was a bond of sorts.

How can new and emerging writers quantify the current and future value of our work and intellectual property without allowing financial value to motivate or compromise the art? How can we figure out how not to let the tensions between commercial realities and artistic integrity hamstring us while others profit from our intellectual property? How would believing in the worth of our work change the way we approach the financials of writing?