Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday 30 May 2011

A member of the set of imaginary writers


Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it. – David Quammen

Here’s another one of those words that we use all the blinkin’ time and think we understand: identity. The first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘identity’ is Superman, as you do. He has a secret identity (Clark Kent). As does Batman (Bruce Wayne), the Flash (Barry Allen amongst others), Daredevil (Matt Murdock), Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Captain America (Steve Rogers) but not Thor; he used to be Donald Blake but now he’s pretty much Thor all the time and let’s face it everyone knows who the Fantastic Four are and the closest the Thing ever gets to a secret identity is slinging on a mac and a trilby. I don’t have a secret identity. I don’t even have a cape.

In philosophy, identity (also called sameness) is whatever makes an entity definable and recognisable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from other entities. Or, in layman's terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different. – Wikipedia

Identity is whatever makes something the same or different. Now that is a sentence to sit and mull over along with cup of coffee and a plate of biscuits.

We all value our individuality but at the same time we want to be one of the gang. It’s like wanting your cake and eating it, isn’t it? Most of us start off our writing lives by identifying with some writer and trying to imitate them making them our role models. We want to be a writer like them. At first we feel our words need to be like theirs but then we realise that if we simply sit at a desk and write on a pretty regular basis then that works too. I don’t think there’s any one of us who isn’t just a little curious about how other writers work, what hours they keep, what their office looks like, how many words a day they think is ‘normal’.

I didn’t do that so much. I never idolised any particular writer. I adored Larkin’s poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’ but I wasn’t that interested in the rest of his stuff. Or him. So my first role model was a poem, not a person. Later I added a poem by William Carlos Williams but even though I bought a book of his poems it was just the one poem, ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’ (the compact version) that caught my attention. Apart from a couple of Williams-esque poems I never tried to imitate either writer at the time. It was the spirit of the poems that I adopted. I never looked for biographies on them or anything like that. I really wasn’t very interested in the writers. I only discovered what Williams looked like a few years ago. I was taken by what they’d written and I’ve always found that to be the case.

But back to Superman/Clark Kent, real name Kal El. Secret or not ‘Clark Kent’ is an identity but then so is ‘Superman’. Who then is Kal El? How do you identify Superman? The outfit with his underpants on the outside, the billowing cape, the ‘S’ logo. If he didn’t dress like that you’d have to wait for him to leap a tall building in a single bound before you’d know, either that or tell you what colour underwear you’re wearing, something like that.

Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person's overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Babies don’t have self-esteem. They don’t look pleased with themselves when they burp or fart at least not until they notice that it gets a favourable response. We have a cockatiel that does that. Every night now when he gets put into his cage he clambers up on the front and does ‘wings’ which in birdy-gestures is the equivalent of giving us the finger: I do not want to go to go to bed now! And how do we respond? We ooh and ahh and generally make approving sounds, the kind of sounds we usually make when he rings the chimes in the window or does something clever. You can almost see the confused look on his face but the simple fact is that he’s started doing it more and more because he obviously likes the approval. He feels good about what he’s doing but is that really self-esteem since the approval he gets comes from outside him?

Self-esteem, self-worth, is not a simple thing to calculate. And at different times in your life certain things are more heavily valued – perfect skin as a teenager, a facility with words when chatting up girls – it all depends on what’s important to you at the time. But how do you know if your assessment of your true worth is accurate? You need an assessor. That makes one think immediately of an individual, a person who we go to to look for some kind of validation but I think we can look at it more broadly. We need a way to assess ourselves. That’s where setting goals comes into play. I toyed with the idea of saying ‘ambition’ but I’ve always thought about ambition to be as much of a negative as a positive quality which it may or may not be depending on the individual and what they’re willing to do to meet their ambitions. Also ambitions tend to focus end-of-the-road achievements, like becoming captain of the football team or something like that. Goals are what you score on the way there.

For writers goals can and should start off quite modestly. I think the first big one I had to reach was to develop perspective. When I first started writing I pretty much thought every time I put pen to paper I was capable of producing a work of staggering genius and it was only a matter of time (and not a very long time) before I wrote one and then, after getting the hang of it, the next work of staggering genius would be a lot easier until every time my pen touched a piece of paper raw, undiluted genius would flow onto the page. I charted my changing views of myself in this poem:

Borrowed Knowledge

As a child
I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
and over time I
forgot most of it.

When a man
I thought I knew many things.
I knew of many things
and I believed
the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
I've grown old and it is clear
to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
is not mine, nor the capital
of Venezuela,
nor the reasons
I'm all alone tonight.

2 October 2007

As it happens I wasn’t physically alone when I wrote the poem but I was alone in the respect that I was still writing in isolation. With the exception of my wife, who by that time had pretty much stopped writing anyway, I had only actually met two writers in the flesh, both friends of my wife as it happens. In August I had started my blog but if I got half-a-dozen hits a day I was jumping for joy. I still felt very much alone. I was a member of the set of imaginary writers. I knew there were other writers out there but they weren’t real to me.

My big problem when I first started out was I had no accurate means of mensuration at my disposal. I knew no other writers. I didn’t know how to be a writer, good, bad or indifferent. I’d look in the mirror and try as I might I couldn’t see a writer looking back at me. I couldn’t tell you the day I looked into the mirror and saw a writer looking back but it was quite a while after I looked into the mirror and saw a man looking back.

act393sI’ve mentioned this comic before, Action Comics #393, cover date: October 1970, ‘The Day Superboy Became Superman’. It’s always had a big effect on me, the realisation that one day you’re a boy and then suddenly, miraculously, people start talking about you as a man. There are cultures throughout the world where they have an official age but even there everyone acknowledges that it’s more of a symbolic thing than anything else. According to the Jewish tradition a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah (son of commandment) when he reaches thirteen years old and for a girl, a Bat Mitzvah (daughter of commandment) when she is twelve. My understanding is that Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was thirty because that was the age when people would regard him as a man and take what he had to say seriously. It’s academic. You get my point.

A few days ago, for only the third time in my life, I went to a gathering of writers, not a virtual gathering but a literal one in an actual pub with real people who complained because I apparently have a firm handshake. The first was a poetry reading I’d been invited to at which I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me; the second was some writers thing in Prestwick of all places and all I can remember about that was hearing Tony Warren talk about Coronation Street – both of those were thirty-plus years ago. This time it was a monthly gathering of writers in Glasgow called ‘Weegie (as in Glaswegian) Wednesday’ at which I got to chat to a nice girl called Stephanie originally from Utah and a couple of others who ended up sat at the table from which I didn’t move all evening except to order a second Diet Coke and to leave. Everyone was nice, very nice, but it got very noisy and crowded and noisy crowds are not really my cup of tea. I don’t like conversations that have to be shouted and I usually end up sitting around regretting never having learned to lip-read. But what really got me was how uncomfortable I felt about myself being there as if I was still pretending to be a writer, as if I hadn’t earned the right to be there.

If I were to pick a verb to go with the word ‘self-esteem’ I think it would be ‘bolster’, as in to support or reinforce; strengthen. One of the main reasons to attend a gathering like that is, I guess, to encourage one another: Look! You’re not alone, there are loads of us flogging the same dead horse and trying to get blood out of stones – you are not alone. And if one of the group has a bit of success then it proves that success is possible because you know a flesh and blood person who actually managed it. There was a girl at my table who had just sold a book and everyone looked so pleased for her and it seemed genuine. That was nice. It was nice that people took encouragement from someone else’s good fortune. And it was to the girl’s credit that she downplayed her success.

Writers don’t usually have thick skins – it’s a side effect of being sensitive souls – and right under our skins lies our self-esteem. It’s the first thing that gets it when we get praised or criticised. Self worth is like an IQ. A high IQ signifies potential, nothing more. A six-year-old can have an IQ of 200 but what will he have done with it in his six years? Self worth is the difference between talent and skill: a skilled craftsman is not necessarily a talented one. And by ‘talent’ I mean a special natural ability or aptitude. Skills come with practice and even the best, the naturals, the Lang Langs and Yehudi Menuhins of this world need to practice to develop their skill set.

The question is: are you basing your self-worth on what you have produced or on what you believe you can produce? If I believed that I had written the best poem, the best short story, play and novel that I was capable of then what am I doing still writing? People judge by appearances. They judge people – other people but also themselves – by what goes on outside of the body, the extra few pounds they might be carrying, the fact that their boss is younger than them, the fact they’re still living with their parents as if all or any of that is an accurate way of measuring worth. And people will judge us by what we produce but only we know what we’re capable of.

A writer is, it is said, his or her own worst critic which is why many re-write their material over and over until they get it right. That’s not a bad thing and probably one of the biggest mistakes newbie writers make is not appreciating the importance of editing their material, but that’s a skill thing – it has nothing to do with talent. There is a danger though that you find you’re never satisfied and simply can’t let go of the material. Again this is a skill thing, knowing when you’ve done the best you can at the time even though you know that in time you could do much better. You will do much better. We all do. But not everything we write has to be a work of staggering genius because most people really don’t want to read works of staggering genius.

Just as an overweight person can use that as the sole measure of their self-esteem I think that writers can do much the same. I’ve hardly written a word for the past three weeks – it happens, I’ve been doing other stuff – and now I’m sitting here at 1:30 in the morning because I’m on a roll and feel I need to write while the ideas are flowing. I’m happy writing. I’m doing what I should be doing. I make sense now. Not being able to fix the new toilet seat a couple of weeks back made me feel bad but if I’d sat down and started writing all that would have been forgotten very quickly because toilet seats aren’t important; writing is.

What is a writer? In its most simplistic terms it is someone who writes. I write ergo I am a writer. But how I define the word ‘writer’ is far more complex than simply equating it to the act of writing. Stephen King is a writer so is Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, etc., etc. Add to that several million other writers and you get a composite picture of what a ‘Writer’ is. I am a member of the set of writers. And my place in the pecking order, how I feel in the company of other writers, clearly affects my self-esteem. I can certainly identify with them – Stephen King sits at a desk like me and writes onto a laptop like me (in that respect we’re the same) – but I’m also acutely aware of the differences between me and him. Remember how Wikipedia defined ‘identity’: “identity is whatever makes something the same or different.”

I learned a new expression today: collective self-esteem. Seems a bit contradictory at first but here’s how it’s defined:

That part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group(s) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership Henri Tajfel, Human Groups and Social Categories, p.255

I had never heard this term before but it’s an interesting one I think. If I were to drawn a Venn diagram of writers it would be a dirty great big circle with all the writers in the world inside it. It’s not that simple though. We have all kinds of writers in that circle, amateurs, professionals, hobbyists, all vying for a good place. Where do I fit in the pecking order? In a room full of writers the calibre of most of which were quite unknown to me I chose to feel small even though I had probably written more than each of the three ladies I was at the table with if only because I was about twenty years older than each of them and so had a head start.

In his book Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious (p.76), John Earl Joseph identifies five positions that are embedded in Tajfel’s proposition:

  • that social identity pertains to an individual rather than to a social group;
  • that it is a matter of self-concept, rather than of social categories into which one simply falls;
  • that the fact of membership is the essential thing, rather than anything having to do with the nature of the group itself;
  • that an individual's own knowledge of the membership, and the particular value they attach to it - completely 'subjective' factors - are what count;
  • that emotional significance is not some trivial side effect of the identity belonging but an integral part of it [italics his]

ADVENTURE-COMICS-247_coverI may have been writing in isolation for many years but I was always aware that I was a part of a much larger group. Which brings me back to comics. Another one I remember from my childhood was Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) where Superboy’s application to join the Legion of Superheroes is rejected because, as Cosmic Boy says on the cover, his “powers are too ordinary.” Of course he does end up being granted ‘honorary membership’ by the end of the issue but even then he has to wait until August 1964 (Adventure Comics #323) before he becomes a regular member.

Can you imagine how he would have felt? Superman is the quintessential superhero and even as a boy he must have realised this. It was bad enough that he had to hide his true identity from most of Earth’s inhabitants and so was well used to not belonging but to be rejected by his peers or if not rejected outright and only then afforded ‘honorary’ membership, that must have stung. But like I said at the start, I’m no superhero. But I’m also not ordinary. I’ve never felt ordinary. And I’ve longed to belong, not in an abstract sense because I belong to lots of different sets, but in a let’s-go-for-coffee sense.

Tajfel was the first to conceive of a collective self-esteem but it was nine years later that Riia Luhtanen and Jennifer Crocker in an article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin proposed a system of assessing it. It can be tweaked according to the ingroup that the person being assessed is affiliated with but this is how is would work for a writer:

Please read each item carefully, and respond by using the following Likert response scale:

  1. = strongly disagree
  2. = disagree
  3. = disagree somewhat
  4. = neutral
  5. = agree somewhat
  6. = agree
  7. = strongly agree

    1. I am a worthy Writer.
    2. I often regret that I am a Writer.
    3. Overall, being a Writer is considered good by others.
    4. Overall, being a Writer has very little to do with how I feel about myself. [1]
    5. I feel I don’t have much to offer to other Writers.
    6. In general, I am glad to be a Writer.
    7. Most people consider Writers, on the average, to be more ineffective than people from other creative disciplines.
    8. Being a Writer is an important reflection of who I am. [7]
    9. I co-operate with other Writers.
    10. Overall, I often feel that being a Writer is not worthwhile.
    11. In general, others respect Writers.
    12. Being a Writer is unimportant to my sense of what kind of a person I am. [1]
    13. I often feel I’m useless as a Writer.
    14. I feel good about being a Writer.
    15. In general, others think that Writers are unworthy.
    16. In general, being a Writer is an important part of my self-image. [7]

Items 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 13 and 15 are all reverse coded.

The Collective Self-Esteem Scale captures four different aspect of collective self-esteem:

  1. Membership esteem: how one judges oneself as a member of the group (items – 1, 5, 9, 13)
  2. Private esteem: how one judges the group itself (items – 2, 6, 10, 14)
  3. Public esteem: how one judges how others evaluate this group (items – 3, 7, 11, 15)
  4. Identify esteem: how one judges the importance of one’s membership in this social group to one’s self-concept (items – 4, 8, 12, 16)

Do I need to be a member of the Set of Writers to be a writer? No. I don’t need to join any organisation, pay any annual fee, wear a badge or register myself anywhere. That doesn’t matter. I know there are other writers out there and no matter how hard I try to say that my relationship to these literally millions of strangers doesn’t matter the fact is it does. Avoiding all contact with other writers might help but it’s not the answer.

Of course there are subsets to which I belong. I’m not simply a writer, I’m a member of the Set of Poets, of Scottish Writers, of Male Novelists, Self-Published Writers, Writers Who Blog, Children’s Writers With Beards and so on and so forth. My self-esteem as a Poet is better than my self-esteem as a Playwright for example: I’ve been paid for my poetry but I’ve never even offered one of my plays to a local theatre group to see if they’d fancy a crack at it.

I’m not suggesting that any of you should take the test but feel free to. I do think the questions are interesting though and worth thinking about. You’ll note that I did actually answer four of the questions. I’ve since had a think about those answers and I’m not sure the answers are accurate because what I was answering was really how I felt about being a writer not how I felt about being part of a group made up of writers. That’s not so important to me. That said I can’t pretend I don’t have a need to be accepted for who I am, to take off the glasses and don the cape or maybe the other way around.

And to end on a light note I’ve just discovered there is a Collective Self-Esteem Network on Facebook (it’s affiliated to the Mutual Admiration Society) where fellow members “give Facebook hugs in a totally Care Bear loves Pedicab way!” I’m not joining. I have enough problems with the groups I’m already a member of.

Further Reading

For a short explanation of collective self-esteem’s four aspects see Julie A. Garcia and Diana T. Sanchez’s article here.

A clear explanation of Likert scaling can be found here.


Gwil W said...

Thanks for sharing the poem, Jim.

I think the only time males really know everything there is to know is in their 13th or 14th year; in that period when they are at their most revolting. I suspect it may different with the fairer sex.

Tim Love said...

I base my writerly self-worth on what I've have produced rather than what I believe I can produce. I base my general self-worth only partly on my writerly self-worth. I'm quite capable of changing the proportions of the ingredients that I use to assess my self-worth.

I go to various writers meetings, but I don't travel much and don't feel part of the festival/workshop-hopping writers community. Hay-on-Wye? No thanks. Though I've heard about people having a web-persona and a face-to-face persona (one meek, perhaps, and one stroppy) I've not experienced this in practise. More often, a writing-persona doesn't match a face-to-face persona.

Identity depends on continuity too - I've read SF stories about human duplication where there's a question of whether the identical copy should feel guilt for the sins of the original.

Alzheimers tests theories of identity. My mother still had her clothes preferences, characteristic gestures, and knew the right time to laugh even though much of her individuality (as in "we are what we remember") had gone.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and informative post. I just read a book which deals with identity called Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (my thoughts:, thought you might be interested.

By the way, the one thing which differentiates Superman from most other superheros is that Clark Kent is his alter-ego and not the other way around.

He is "super", but is in constant struggle to be a "man".

Art Durkee said...

I think it's important to not confuse self-esteem with self-worth or self-confidence. They may be interrelated, but in practical terms they have different outcomes. One can show self-confidence without necessarily having a lot of inner self-esteem; some people call that acting. Self-worth is the idea you have of your own value; self-esteem is the acknowledgment that you DO have value.

Caroline Myss, one of my favorite teachers of spiritual matters, talks about how self-esteem is more important to have than many other characteristics. I agree with her that genuine love is not possible without first having self-esteem. Otherwise you will try to fill the gaps in yourself with other people, and that leads to toxic codependence. The point is that you have to already feel good about your own self before you are ready to meet others as an equal.

I think that's also true for writers. Writers seem to really lack self-esteem, even more than artists in other genres, in my experience. All of us suffer from not being taking seriously by our materialistic, product-oriented culture. But writers seem to have much more fragile egos than, say, dancers or composers. Of course I'm making a big generalization, and there are individual exceptions, but this is based on being and artist and observing other artists throughout my whole life. I'm not really sure WHY writers seem to have much more fragile egos; they're certainly no more "sensitive artists" than artists in other genres. Maybe writers, because they're good with words, are also good at talking themselves into dysfunctional ideas about themselves. Maybe it's because writers take their words as representations of truth, as truth itself, rather than remembering than words are only symbolic representations: signs and symbols, with no physical existence. Maybe that's the real source of writers' anxieties: knowing that in the end they're playing with airy ideas, and that these airy ideas can easily get detached from the real world.

Tim Love said...

"I'm not really sure WHY writers seem to have much more fragile egos" - Art
I've heard it said that novelists (moreso than dancers, or even poets) are alone much of the time, so when they become depressed, insecure, etc they can sink fast. It's also claimed that because they are inhabiting the alternative reality of their novel for so long, they can become detached from the stabilising support of The Real World.

Art Durkee said...

litrefs, I think you're probably right about those contributing factors.

But I find that poets have egos just as fragile as novelists, if not more so. maybe because their art is even harder to make a living at. And more ignored by the general reader. Some poets give the public the finger and retreat into their ivory-tower solitudes; others become more vocal about bringing poetry to the public. Which route a poet chooses, there, might give some clues to other aspects of their personalities.

Elisabeth said...

Groups can bolster self esteem, Jim but they can also crush it. I should know I've written about it. Funny that. Once I write about something it takes on a different hue. It becomes strangely more manageable, for me at least.

Identity is another of those trick words. I agree with you here, Jim. I reckon identity is multiple and unfixed, fluid depending on where you are where you've been and where you're about to go.

This here is another terrific post, Jim. I enjoy it when you reach beyond someone else's writing into your own. Not that I don't enjoy your thoughts about other people's books and writing but unlike you who starts with an interest in the poem not the poet, I'm interested in both, and particularly interested in the person behind the poem, however much I might imagine him or her to be.

As for belonging to a club of writers, we are such diverse bunch, I can't imagine belonging to a large group. There are so many different types of writers.

I heard an Australian writer Craig Sherbourne on the radio yesterday talking to our BookShow's Ramona Koval, a Melbourne/Australia must, and he talked about the way he does 'inside jobs', as opposed to 'outside jobs'.

Outside jobs Sherbourne reckons are the stuff of journalism, the business of getting the overall outside impression, whereas he's interested in the inside story, getting inside people's heads, including his own, to better understand the human condition.

I'm an inside job person, too, Jim, as I suspect you are, however much yo prefer not to focus too much on the autobiographical.

There are some universals however much we must be wary of generalising and of reductive thinking.

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Gwilym, I was exactly the same. I was such an arrogant cuss at about that age. I liked the idea, the very Romantic idea, that Inspiration descended on me, that for the few minutes I was writing I was different, I was special.

I like that phrase, Litrefs, “Identity depends on continuity.” I can see that hanging around my brain for a while. It’s like an ex-military man insisting on using his rank as a civilian years after he’s stopped being that person, forcing that ‘identity’ to continue beyond its expiry date.

Man of la Book, yes, you’re quite right there. That’s why I used him as an example because he has that extra layer. I had a look at your review. The book sounds interesting but I was more struck by your question: So tell me, would you like a chance to reinvent yourself? My answer has to be: Yes, because that’s what I did four years ago, decided to bring the writer in me to the fore and stop trying to be “normal”. Nowadays I don’t spend any significant time around non-writers. I’ve shed my Clark Kent persona. Not sure if I’m Superman or Kal El though.

I don’t really have an answer for you, Art. Perhaps painters and composers aren’t as gregarious as writers are and so don’t face as many opportunities for criticism. I’ve not looked but I can’t imagine many critique sites for painters and composers but they’re all over the place on the Web as far as writers go. I would also imagine that there are more amateur writers than there are amateur painters and composers. I can agree up to a point with what Litrefs suggests but I’ve painted and written music and I did that alone and had no desire to seek out other painters or composers so I don’t know.

And, Lis, I actually wrote this post six months ago. I’ve not been back to Weegie Wednesday since. I did go to a poetry critique group a couple of weeks later and a poetry reading a couple of weeks after that (I slunk in late – hated it – and only stayed a half hour) but since then I’ve been nowhere and have very much curled up into my little shell. A friend of mine is having a book launch in Glasgow in three weeks and I feel duty bound to go but I don’t want to. I feel bad about not wanting to but I can’t help how I feel. I’d be happy to meet her for a quiet coffee but I know there will be others there at the launch, people I know from online, and I don’t want to be judged; that’s the bottom line. I feel like a comedian who is expected to be funny all the time and who disappoints people when he can’t be. I hate to disappoint people. Online I have hours and hours to get my words right. I’ve no idea how long it took me to write this but it was probably two or three days easily. It’s easy to sound like you know what you’re talking about when you have time to consider every line. (That’s what I hate about Jane Austin characters with their ‘considered’ responses.)

I think one thing I probably should have talked about in this article is how we identify with people and what identification has to do with identity. I am genuinely uncomfortable when around other writers and the feelings are odd, ranging from feeling superior to them (the hobbyists) to not feeling worthy to ties their shoelaces (the professionals). Suffice to say my identity as a writer comes under scrutiny when in the company of others who I should feel at home with. Carrie’s two friends weren’t too bad because we met them in the flat and people always play better on their home pitch.

Can’t think of anything else to say just now. I’m going to have a wisdom tooth extracted in a couple of hours. I’m fretting and finding it hard to concentrate on what I’m writing.

Elisabeth said...

It's a bit late in the day, and you're a bit long in the tooth to have your wisdom teeth removed, Jim, aren't you?

On the other hand, my husband at sixty-one, still has one of his baby teeth in place. It has refused to drop out.

I hope it's not too traumatic for you, wisdom tooth removal that is. I for one can identify with the horrors of visits to the dentist.

Ken Armstrong said...

My self-esteem as a writer rises and falls like the tides and may also be related to the moon-cycle. :)

It's good that the writing stays and stays, good or bad as the eye of the beholder sees it.

It's great that there's a beholder.

Good luck with the tooth. Be nice to yourself after it's all done.

Jim Murdoch said...

What’s nice, Ken, is that occasionally, at least with me, I pick up something I’ve written several years ago, read it and go, “You know, I can actually write.” Most of the time I read old stuff and squirm with embarrassment but I tend to rely on moments like that to keep me going. Tooth out – by the numbers from all accounts – and feeling just a wee bit delicate this morning.

awyn said...

Hi Jim. Great post! You mentioned your bottom line as "not wanting to be judged." Wow, did *that* hit home. Say one writes both "writings" and poetry, feels comfortable identifying oneself as a writer but feels strange describing oneself as a poet [writing of a different sort], which has nothing to do with one's self assessment of one's worth or perceived talent. Where's that coming from? Fear of judgment (by others) that suggests a contrary evaluation? Maybe responses to poetry, as with art, are more subjective than to 'writing'.

I share your sense of discomfort (and sometimes dread) at the prospect of hobnobbing with writers where sometimes one's lack (or method) of publication automatically places you in a certain perceptual category (the word "wannabe" comes to mind).

I think it's when we remove that "I-don't-give-a-fig-who-likes-this-or-not" mental obstacle and write the best we can, *as* ourselves, regardless of how we feel it might be judged, that sometimes even our writer-selves become surprised.

Anyway, about 'voice' and 'identity', sometimes we're our own worst enemies. "What you see is what you get" is both true and not, depending on who the *you* is and in what circumstances. As to having to be physically present at a noisy writers' gathering, I'd take these on-line, thoughtful discussions amongst both readers and writers, such as in this comment box, anyday! Thanks, as always, Jim, for much to think about.

Art Durkee said...

I've very much gotten over the "not wanting to be judged" feeling when it comes to others who write because I've been attacked, vilified, ostracized, banned, and vilified twice by various groups of writers, both online and in the real world. My jaundiced view of poets online is precisely because of being the target so many times. I wasn't alone in being targeted, it was usually group vs. group; I was usually in the group speaking truth to power, truth to managerial lies, or refusing to toe someone's line.

I have met no group, online or off, more vicious than those who decide to form and enforce cliques on online poetry workshop critique boards. The deep irony of course is that people who are dedicated to using words to express themselves often try to rub out the expressions of others. The other irony is when they deny that words can hurt feelings, when they know damn well they can. LOL

My point here is that it was a good means of learning to get over feeling judged as a writer. After the burn scars heal, you end up with a toucher skin.

Last month I tried to go back and participate on one of those old boards where I had once been an integral member. It lasted about two weeks, when I realized that I was going to be attacked by some people (who had once been friends, but in the interim seem to have gone off the deep end) anytime I said anything, anywhere, for any reason. So that door is closed again.

One reason writers become solitary is because they're too thin-skinned. I do not say that judgmentally, but as an observation. Being thin-skinned means being sensitive enough to let the world in, via experience and imagination, and thus be able to reproduce it in words. Channel it, re-express it.

But writers' groups do not nurture the thin-skinned into becoming better writers. Maybe some groups offer emotional support to some, but how does that improve one's writing? It seems to always be the dilemma that groups of writers either offer emotional support OR they offer devastatingly honest critique about the writing. (The worst offer neither.) It seems to be a genuine either/or. I can take the honest critiques about the writing, as long as they're confined to the writing. The moment you start critiquing the writer, you've got a potential Situation in the making.

So these days I don't give a rat's ass what people think of me OR of my writing. I'm not writing for them. I'm not even writing "for myself." It's just something I do. People don't have to like; and appears that most don't, if only because those who do let you know it less often than those who don't. Most writers still think that honesty equates with negativity.

Jim Murdoch said...

Whose looking down on who, Annie? Sometimes I wonder. When I went to Weegie Wednesday everyone was very nice but the questions were all the same: a) What type of stuff do you write? b) What are you working on just now? and c) Have you been published? and I found all three hard to answer but as soon as I said I’d self-published two novels I could see what they were thinking: Oh, he’s not a real writer and when they told me they wrote for children I thought … well, you don’t want to know what I thought but it was less than charitable. To my mind a real writer is someone who follows his heart and writes what he has to write. Other writers would say that a real writer is one who can write a book and get it accepted by a traditional publisher even if that means reworking the book to suit the needs of said publisher as long as an income can be made at the end of the day; plumbers work to earn money, lawyers do and so how can you be a writer if you’re not earning? It’s a point but not the only one. I do everything myself because that way I take all the credit and I accept any blame. If there is a single typo in my book it’s my fault and no one else’s.

The thing about Weegie Wednesday, Art, is that it was more of a social thing. I went at Xmas and so there was a bit more of a party atmosphere but I was told that the only real difference is that they usually have a couple of guest speakers to break up the evening. Other than that it’s just mingling/schmoosing and I find that hard. I stayed two hours I think and it was a long two hours. After I answered people’s questions I pretty much sat there sipping my Coke until I thought I could politely escape. It was too noisy. An old fella tried to spark up a conversation at one point but it was clear he was struggling every bit as much as me. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was friendly; it was me, it was most definitely me.

I would love to say that, like you, I don't give a rat's ass what people think of me OR of my writing but that’s not the case. I want to be liked. It doesn’t matter that I don’t agree with the standards that other people use to judge me I still want a favourable judgement. And I’m never going to get that. There are too many people out there who think that their way of looking at the world is the only right one and if you don’t conform then sod you. There are too many groups with too many different standards. It’s impossible to please all the people all of the time. Or even most of the people most of the time. I can live with some of the people some of the time and it helps if some of those just happen to be writers.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Jim. Its so relevant for us writers. We are seeking our writing identity, finding our voice. And the publishing journey definitely bruises our self esteem. The poem is wonderful.

Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment. I like the titles of your books.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Rachna. I think it’s a great thing that nowadays people as far apart geographically and culturally as you and I can find common ground like this and bolster each other’s confidence: we are not alone and even if we feel alone we at least know we’re not alone in feeling alone. The problem with writing, of course, is that you do it alone and so you never see what other writers go through (and we always assume that everyone else find it easier than we do): footballers see their teammates play, firemen see their colleagues in action but most writers only meet people who say they’ve written and we have to imagine them writing. I guess that’s why we like to see photos of other writers’ rooms – some kind of proof.

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