Saturday, July 18, 2015

How to be encouraging without actually raising any hopes

My name on Twitter is not my name; it’s ElectronWoman, an e-pen name I used in the blog before this one. I don’t use the ElectronWoman name for anything anymore, but I can’t seem to change it on Twitter without starting all over again, which is just too damn much work considering I’m on Twitter maybe twice a month, so fine, all Tweets henceforth from me shall be negatively charged. That was the reason for the name, you see, the negative part. One of the big themes of my previous blog was how to be a pessimist in a tyrannically optimistic world that insists on cramming positivity in your every orifice. Now that my blog is simply my name, the theme is slightly different. These days it seems like most of what I write about falls under the header (because I’m stodgy and still put things under headers and not hashtags): how to accept your life.

ElectronWoman was right about some things, you see. You do not get what you want in life just because you want it badly enough. I wanted, always and only, to be a writer, to see my books on the shelves of bookstores, to see them being read in public places, to have my writing be the center of my life and to get paid lavishly for it. Well, I’m a writer of sorts, but bookstores are nearly extinct, the only thing people read in public places are text messages, the center of my life is occupied by a number of different things struggling for balance, and as for pay, well, the good news is I haven’t made enough as a writer to worry about the IRS coming after me for undeclared income. I’m actually OK with all of this much of the time; I have too many other nifty things going on in my life to fret excessively about the disappointments in this one area. Sometimes, though. Sometimes I’m not so OK with it.

I just finished teaching at a week-long camp for high school students down at the university where I used to work. This isn’t tents-and-smores camping but rather academic camping, an unbelievably popular phenomenon appealing to overachieving parents and charmingly nerdy kids who would rather write poems and argue about Shakespeare than do naturey stuff in the woods, or whatever it is you do at tents-and-smores camp. (I never did either when I was their age; I mostly worked summers at my mother’s business, which sounds a lot more Dickensian than is true since “work” consisted of her giving me stuff to do to keep me out of her way and me listlessly doing it until it was time to get plate lunch at Zippy’s.) The course I taught was called “A Novel Idea: How to get started, keep writing, and learn about the publishing business,” and I called it that because I had a feeling it would get people interested. Not surprisingly, I was right: it was the most requested course being offered. 

This was good in that I knew I would have a motivated class, but it also made me feel weary even before I’d started planning my activities for the week. Here we go again, another room full of eager young aspiring novelists, dreaming the same dreams I used to have. It’s easy for me to encourage people to write; that part didn’t trouble me. But almost nobody who writes does so just for fun, just for their own satisfaction; we write for an audience, and that means getting published, and that means—well, I’m not even entirely sure what it means anymore because the world of publishing is changing so much. One thing will likely stay the same, though: a very small number of people will become the kind of writer I dreamed of becoming; the rest won’t come remotely close.

I did not want to say this to them (at least not on the first day); my goal was to encourage the writing but to be realistic about publishing without sounding cranky and embittered. Truth is, though, I probably could have been cranky and embittered and told them before I even introduced myself to give it up now while their minds and livers were still intact. Saying that the number of writers who make a living at writing could be counted on your fingers (with perhaps a digit or two left over for a rude gesture) discourages no one. Everyone thinks they’ll be the exception. This mindset is reinforced when people say “it’s mostly luck.” This is part of the gambler’s fallacy: when you think something is completely random, it gives you hope, no matter how long the odds, because nobody else has an unfair advantage over you and it could just as well be you as someone else. You never know! Except, here’s the thing: 1) That’s stupid. 2) Would that getting published were merely a matter of luck. It isn’t. The deck is stacked against you, heavily.

Of all the aspiring writers I’ve met in my life—and there have been hundreds—I am only personally acquainted with one who made it big the way writers dream of making it big, and it was definitely not luck that got her there. She’s hugely talented, of course, but then a lot of people are. More important to her success, she’s unbelievably hard-working; she reads and writes so much I suspect she’s either twins or a literary Terminator-like cyborg who never has to sleep or eat. Come with me if you want to read. A large part of this hard work has included getting her name out there in blogs, in Tweets, in literary and commercial publications, on a wide range of subjects, and not just the highfallutin’ stuff but also things like The Bachelor, which I believe she has live-Tweeted on many occasions. In short, she was already famous in writing before her first novel was even finished.

This is what you have to do, kids, to make it out there, or at least this is one way to do it, and it’s not a way most people can do it. There are other ways; you can be the offspring of publishers (Christopher Paolini), you can be a television executive with lots of contacts in the media world (E.L. James), you can write a spot-on grant proposal and get free money from Scotland to finish your book (J.K. Rowling). One way not to do it is to write your book and imagine you’ll be plucked from obscurity and flung into fame. Yet of course that’s what the kids in my class all imagined. Oh, they were a lot more savvy and sensible than I’m giving them credit for; they asked smart questions about agents, about self-publishing, about rewriting and editing. Several of them said they knew they weren’t ready to publish just yet; they looked at other writers’ works and realized they had a long way to go. One young lady even said this about my work, after I gave a reading from my novel. “I wish I could write like that!” she gushed. I was flattered momentarily, but the thing in my brain that uses my ego as a pincushion whenever it gets too inflated quickly sprang into action. And I wish I could write like about a hundred other writers I’ve read, I told her. What I didn’t tell her was It never ends, you’re never satisfied, and the chances are you never will be.

The problem with my saying all the gloom-and-doom stuff to them is that it would mean admitting something about myself. Yes, I have two novels published. They were published with small independent presses. I enjoyed writing the books, I enjoyed working with the publishers, and I’m thrilled when people buy and read my books. This is success. I wish it were enough. It isn’t always. When I think about this success I sometimes get the same feeling I do when I run a marathon that didn’t go the way I’d hoped and someone congratulates me by saying “You finished! That’s great!” I’m torn between a nasty retort Of course I finished, I wouldn’t have bothered doing this if I didn’t think I could finish and a more humble thanks for the reminder that just being able to do this thing I enjoy doing is pretty damn wonderful all by itself. And so it goes with writing. Getting a book written and published at all by any means is an accomplishment of sorts, but even if most people don’t write books or run marathons, there are still a whole lot of people who do, so congratulating one’s self for this starts to feel like those last days of elementary school where everybody gets a prize for something. Congratulations, your shoes were tied every day this semester! Great job, you properly raised your hand before asking questions! Way to go with writing your name at the top of your homework assignments! You’re a star!

So there it is. What do I accept? Do I congratulate myself for having properly tied the laces on my shoes even though I’m not running particularly well in those shoes? Or do I keep trying to meet the ambitious running goals I made a while back, before it started being less and less fun trying to meet those goals? Am I satisfied with what I’ve accomplished or am I giving up too soon? Am I giving up too soon or am I realistically avoiding chasing after goals that are unrealistic and—far more significantly—keeping me from enjoying the great things I already have in life? ElectronWoman would have said Wake up, ya moron; you failed. You aren’t the writer you wanted to be, and it was hubris to imagine you could just waltz your way past 26.2 miles and into Boston. If at first you don’t succeed it’s because you suck, plain and simple. But ElectronWoman is also the one who, despite all that dark-hearted negativity, went after those goals in the first place. Pessimistic people dream as big as anyone else—bigger, I’ll wager—to the point where the size of their dreams scares them a little and they allay the fear by facing it. What’s the worst that could happen? We fail. What’s the best that could happen? We succeed. What is most likely to happen? We wander somewhere in between for a long time, and we can call it succeeding or failing but it’s really mostly just living, just our lives, such as they woefully and wonderfully may be.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A textbook example

My sister called me up the other night to ask a question about publishing. Apparently I’m the expert in the family now, though she wasn’t asking on her behalf but rather our father’s. Our father has been trying to get his latest book project published (there have been many such book projects, each one described as “the last chance I have before I die”). This book is … well, my sister and I aren’t entirely sure what it is because we have yet to receive a clear and satisfactory description of it. We think it’s supposed to be a college textbook of sorts, but as soon as we ask him if that’s the case, he’ll exclaim, “No! It’s an anti-textbook!” This is the point, I think, where we are supposed to widen our eyes and drop our jaws as though John Keating has opened up the wonderful world of poetry to us instead of turning it into yet another soul-deadening subject students hate. Unfortunately, from there he goes on to describe a book that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except that, like most academic books, it reflects the writer’s belief that his ideas are the right ones and the world would be a far better place if everyone followed them. I realize everyone in this world pretty much feels this way, but few of them go so far as to document this sensibility in chapter form with ridiculously leading discussion questions.

I admit I once tried to write a textbook myself but abandoned the project because unlike my father, I have at least an inkling of what a college classroom is like and what publishing has become. I cannot explain texting to my father; I will simply let him believe to the end of his days that “text” means a document printed on paper, which will make things easier for me but will keep him woefully ignorant about exactly who he thinks should benefit from his book. 

To be fair, my father is 86 years old, and for him the idea of shunning things like rote memorization in the classroom is still bold and radical. I know we like to criticize classrooms today for hampering creativity and teaching to the test, but compared to my father’s schooling, education today is nearly free-form. When was the last time you found anyone under the age of 45 who diagrammed sentences as a kid? Yeah, Catholic school, I know, but still that practice has pretty much been dead for a very long time, as has the practice of memorizing historical names and dates and places—pretty much history in general. So when my father talks about daring to allow students to think for themselves, he’s ironically falling into the same pattern as just about every teacher I know, myself included. We all think we alone have discovered the answer.

It’s not just teachers, though; everyone on earth has an opinion on what’s wrong with our schools. Slightly fewer people, but only slightly, have ideas about how to fix what’s wrong with our schools. What’s interesting to me isn’t just what people think is wrong and what their solutions are but where these ideas come from. I read an interesting article from Slate suggesting that my “generation”—so-called Generation X, people currently anywhere from their early 40s to mid-50s—are guilty of overparenting precisely as a reaction against their own experiences as children being “under-parented.” The helicopter parents of today, the article hypothesized, hover over their brood precisely because their own folks were devout practitioners of benign neglect. They put food on the table but had no understanding of or time for emotional development, creativity, or personal growth. As a result, so the article claimed, this generation overcompensates by not only refusing to cut the cord but teaching their children how to weave that cord into a blanket, the better to smother you with. This, the article went on to say, is leading to serious problems for students in college, who are supposed to be adults yet have no real experiences on their own and are so afraid of failing to live up to expectations that they’re terrified of doing anything.

I nodded like a bobble-head doll throughout my reading of the article, several times pounding a fist on my desk and shouting a heart-felt “amen!” Damn those helicopter parents and their incessant coddling! In all seriousness, I do think this article had a lot of valid points. I’ve often felt particularly frustrated in the way people have tried to encourage girls to succeed both academically and extracurricularly. Obviously this sort of “girl power” movement is a reaction against all those decades—centuries, epochs, you name it—in which women were not only not encouraged but not allowed to do the things men did. And yet I worry about this push for success, for both boys and girls. The one thing in the world that helps you to grow as a human being is failure. But if our focus is on straight-As, first place, top prize, highest honors, and nothing less will do, well, I start to wonder if we’re learning anything at all.

And this goes beyond simply success or failure. The most interesting experiences in life don’t necessarily have a specific end goal. Travel, for example. I’m not even talking about the cliché about how it’s not the destination but rather the journey, because that’s kind of bullshit; the journey these days likely involves some very uncomfortable modes of transportation that nobody learns anything from except that deodorant is not as commonly used as one would hope. I think it's slightly more accurate to say that travel is an experience, not just a goal, and most people who travel have a lot more fun telling stories about the awkward, the embarrassing, the frustrating, the perplexing, even the boring. The six hours I spent in layover at the Taipei Airport—otherwise known as Sensory Deprivation Land—were like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.

I was all set to write a blogpost that might have ended right about here with just one final lament that today’s parents just don’t get it, they just don’t understand the necessity of letting kids figure things out for themselves, of not pushing them too hard to achieve even while pulling them away from any potential harm. I started to do just that, and then it hit me. Holy crap. I was describing my own childhood, my own parents, as being the ideal—something I have never for one second believed in my life. I’ve spent way too much time absurdly stewing over how much I missed out on as a child because my parents never paid all that much attention to what I was doing beyond making sure I did my homework and didn’t get into trouble. I resented their lack of encouragement, and here I am now suggesting that parents today encourage the life out of their kids. Irony can be so tiresome.

I wonder when that shift occurs, when in our lives we go from wanting to do everything the opposite of the way we were brought up to firmly maintaining, albeit not entirely consciously, that the way we were raised is the one true way. My father was largely self-taught, a dabbler-of-all-trades, and as a result he has produced a textbook (sorry, anti-textbook) that attempts to cover just about every subject in the world at the same time, more or less. Me, I think the most important things I learned in life, I learned later in life, after a lot of terrible trial and egregious error; as a result I will tell any undergraduate who will listen that it does not matter what you major in AT ALL. No, it TOTALLY doesn’t. What matters is trying stuff, doing stuff, not worrying about whether the stuff is going to make you admired or empowered or even successful but simply because you can. Go figure: I guess my life is valid after all.

Our views of what would make the world a better place are always going to reflect what would make it better for us personally. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While we may be validating our own lives by suggesting other people live like we do, it also means that we are able to come to terms with what has deviled us in the past. Maybe those aimless, baffling years weren’t such a waste in the end. Maybe I can even get a book out of them.