I've read that there are two types of literature: one that takes the reader away from the mundanities of everyday life on a journey of imagination; the other that probes the complexities of human psyche and experience in such a deep way that it makes the reader view his or her own life in a different way. I think there might be a more important reason: validation.
We all think we're alone, that no one understands us, and in many ways that is true, we are all one of those islands Donne talked about. In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, who was playing author C S Lewis, explained, "We read so know we are not alone". I'm pretty sure Lewis said that but if he didn’t then all credit to William Nicholson, the scriptwriter.
I had a man, a fellow poet as it happens, take one of my poems and pin it to the cork board beside his desk because I had found the words that explained why he wrote. Another girl I used to work with kept a copy of one of my poems and renamed it "the Barry poem" because it expressed exactly how she felt about this particular man. Yet another girl wanted to leave one of my short stories in her loo so people could read it at their convenience.
Writing is a distillation of aspects of life into words. Words facilitate understanding. They stop us having to rely on feeling that something is right; words explain to us why it is. In all of the instances cited, my writing somehow validated the feelings, beliefs and actions of my readers. “It is okay to be the way I am,” they could now say, “because I am not alone, someone else understands and now I do too.”
I have lived a quiet life. Mostly that's been by choice even though few opportunities for excitement have presented themselves to me and those that have I’ve shied away from. I write about the same things over and over again: people. People fascinate me more than anything else. I could have been a scientist. I could watch a guy in an empty room for hours on end. Unless that room was the Big Brother house. And even then, with the sound down, I'm actually quite content to watch that too. And most of the time it's not what they're doing that interests me but what they might do: Man is a storehouse of potentiality.
Books are the same. What's going to happen next? It's why I like writing. It's all about filling up that white page. I saw an author interviewed a while back – can't think who it was although I suspect it was Stephen Fry – who when asked what his favourite book was he said: "My next one." His flippancy aside I get it. No one is that interested in a jigsaw when the pieces have been fitted together. All they care about are rooting through the pile to see what they can do to reduce that empty space in between. Every bit they add on makes the rest make more sense.
Reading is like that for me. I'm looking for the bits and pieces that other people have written that I can incorporate into my personal ethos, that enable me to make more sense out of me. The first one I recognised as such was contained in Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney'. I extracted its essence and it became mine. Others followed, a few poems, but strangely enough for a poet it is novels and,, especially films and TV that I drawn most from.
It’s not a matter of copying – I never changed my mode of dressing to imitate pop stars – so much as looking for characters who were going through the same kind of stuff as I was and reacting in a similar fashion. Probably the first of these would be Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar. Billy is generally described as a Walter Mittyish character because of his overactive imagination – Billy often drifts off and imagines himself in fantastic scenarios – but although I wasn’t as extreme as he was, I did live very much inside my own head – that was where I retreated from the world around me – but I think what got me about him was his inability to truly escape the world in which he lived. At the end of the book he packs his case and is just about to flee to London with Liz when he backs out at the last minute, deliberately missing the train. I got that. I was born with a strong (at times, oppressive) sense of duty and so I did what was expected of me.
About eight years later, still doing my duty, I came across Billy again in Waterhouse’s sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon in which we find Billy, now thirty-three, married, as was I and eight years into an undistinguished career with Shepford Council; at the time I wasn’t in local government I was in the Civil Service but I suppose it’s much the same. I was a pen pusher and in the early seventies that’s exactly what I did. No desktop computers back then. The fanciest thing we had was microfiche. Had my wife not left me I’d be there to this day I can guarantee that. I didn’t like Billy Liar on the Moon when I read it then; it hit too close to home. When I was a teenager I fully intended getting on that train and so there was hope that I might not turn out like Billy. The irony is that I did get on that train sort of but all I did when I found myself with a bit of freedom was to replicate what I’d run away from because it was comfortable, exactly as Billy had.
Validation isn’t a word we use too often these days without the word ‘parking’ in the same sentence. And a car park is a fairly decent metaphor for people’s need for social validation:
The philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were among the first to critique what they referred to as "the crowd" (Kierkegaard) and "herd morality" and the "herd instinct" (Nietzsche) in human society. Modern psychological and economic research has identified herd behaviour in humans to explain the phenomena of large numbers of people acting in the same way at the same time. The British surgeon Wilfred Trotter popularized the "herd behaviour" phrase in his book, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1914). – Wikipedia
In car parks everyone is looking for their place and woe betide anyone who strays over the white line. The problem with car parks is that they don’t provide much scope. You can park your car, wheel your trolley to the car while you load it up and drive away after returning your trolley to the nearest corral. Occasionally exceptions are made. One or two bays might be designated for recycling bins or a blood transfusion unit might be allowed to park over several spots for the day but that’s about it. If you don’t own a car, really what’s your business there?
At school I pretty much read the same books as everyone else, listened to the same music, told the same jokes and lusted after the same girls. It was only when I left school that I started to work on a personal identity. The problem with developing one of those in a ‘car park society’ is that there’s not much wiggle room. But one thing you can get away with doing in a parked car is read. And so I read.
Subjective validation, sometimes called personal validation effect, is a cognitive bias by which a person will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to them. – Wikipedia
This subjective validation is generally at the heart of people’s reports of the experience of paranormal phenomena.
Another common name for subjective validation is “The Forer Effect,” named after psychologist B.R. Forer. He discovered in experiments with his undergraduate students in 1948 that a person can be quite willing to accept some general or vague description of their personality as being unique to them, even though the exact same description would apply equally well (or equally badly) to everyone.
In his experiment, Forer gave a personality test to his students and then, without bothering to even read them, gave back a general personality analysis — the exact same one to each student, taken from a newspaper astrology column. He asked his students to rate his analysis and received an overwhelmingly positive response — his students were convinced that he could “read” their personalities. The same or similar experiments have been performed repeatedly through the decades in a variety of contexts, and the results continue to be the same. – Austin Cline, ‘Flaws in Reasoning and Arguments: Subjective Validation: Seeing Patterns & Connections That Aren't Really There’, About.com
I once gave a collection of my short stories to a friend at work, Charlie, who took them away on holiday to read. When he returned he told me that he had sat and read them aloud to a group of his friends, which I was flattered by, flattered that a) he would think they were good enough to do something like that and b) that he apparently kept their attention. One guy in particular related very strongly to one of the pieces and he even said to Charlie, “How does this man know what I’m thinking?” I have no idea who the fellow was and Charlie couldn’t actually remember which story it was but he did remember very clearly what the guy said.
Without more information I can only wonder but I have no doubt that he connected with my story just as I’ve connected with books like Billy Liar. For some inexplicable reason if we can find someone out there whose solution to life is to be like us then we can’t be all bad, can we? Isn’t that how we think?
Self-improvement gurus make a big thing about the need for validation and the opportunities we have to validate which they might define as “an observable act and human behaviour that espouses both appreciation and gratitude.” It’s something we can do for others in often the simplest ways. For example, in Left the protagonist is walking down the street when she sees an old man:
I caught the eye of a small, thin man wearing a gabardine overcoat I imagine probably fitted him when he first bought it. … I smiled awkwardly at the man and the look of panic on his face dissipated. I honestly forget how severe my expression can appear at times. I probably made his day. I was probably the first person to look him in the face let alone smile at him all day.
(Note to self: too many uses of the word ‘probably’ – fix that.)
If people are looking for some kind of validation they will read into things. It all depends on how great the need is. What that smile said to that old man no one will ever know.
Self-confidence is important. And there will be some people whose self-confidence is enough to last them their whole lives, the unshakeable belief that who they are is who they should be, but those people are few and far between if indeed they exist at all. I don’t need validation to keep writing. I’ve written in isolation for most of my life. Since I decided to play online I’ve received numerous pats on the back and they have been appreciated – please, pat away to your heart’s desire – but only a fool would become dependent on the praise of others. I think when an artist becomes too concerned about pleasing his fans he’s done for. Dylan went electric and that was that: some bitched and ditched his LPs, others moaned but were eventually won round; as for the rest they would probably have followed him to hell and back no matter what he did.
How many times do you need to get your parking validated? Every time you park the car? Does that mean that every time I write a poem I’m looking for it to be validated? Well I show my wife everything I write and I pay attention to her criticisms which are rare but if I really believed in a piece of writing no one would make me change a word. Is this a valid way to behave? I believe so. Because someone out there will read what I’ve written one day and they will connect with it, it will be the validation that someone needed to keep being who they are.
The Internet provides all of with an opportunity to provide and receive instant validation. And all it takes is one person. Imagine getting up on a podium and delivering a speech and while you’re trying your best they’re throwing rotten fruit at you and jeering but out of sheer willpower you have your say and staged off before they run out of fruit and start looking for more substantial things to throw. You clean yourself off in the loo and wait for the crowd to disperse in case someone suggests a lynching but as you slink from the shadows and try to make it to your car a stranger approaches and says, “Excuse me. I’d just like to say how much I appreciated what you had to say today.” Can you imagine how you would feel? That it was all worthwhile.
They say that one “aw shit” wipes out ten “attaboys” and there is some truth in that. It depends on the circumstances. The very opposite can be just as true. But most of the encouragement I get online these days is indirect. It’s not people saying nice things to spur me on, it’s people talking about doing the kinds of things I do as normal. Occasionally I do online surveys and a few times I’ve been asked how many hours a week I spend in front of a computer. Part of me is a little embarrassed because the figure is so high but I know that most of you reading this will be spending the same, maybe even a little more. Validation.
Someone paying you a compliment is one thing but Keith Waterhouse wasn’t writing to me when he wrote Billy Liar. He knew nothing about me. I wasn’t even born when he was writing the book. I read his book though as if he was writing to me. I knew that Billy wasn’t happy at the end of the first book (nor is he very happy at the end of the second) but at least he’d done his duty and I believed that was more important than being happy. So I used a book to validate a course of action I knew was wrong for me. Whether I could have lived with the guilt for not doing my duty is another thing and the answer to that is probably, no.