Growing up, I never really had a present dad to give me positive or negative feedback. (Yes, I know. ‘Copious tears’ [Coen Brothers reference]). I was already an adult when I acquired my first true father figure and it had a direct influence on my writing, being properly concerned with it to some degree.
It’s a long story, but suffice to say, it wasn’t in an academic, or even a critique group, setting. And here’s the most important thing he taught me. It’s about the work, not about me. All critique is about the work, any praise is about the work. It’s not about me.
But I wanted it to be about me. I still want it to be about me, though I’ve learned to keep that voice mostly quiet. There is still the voice that wants to be loved, admired, and, of course, worshiped like a God. But it’s not about me.
I have a theory that in every truly new direction in life one chooses, we need a mother and a father. Not necessarily at the same time or the same place. Maybe it’s the Jungian in me. It seems we need the balancing influences to bear to the task at hand.
In regards to writing, both of mine appeared at roughly the same time, though from different directions. My writing mother was the first to name me. “You’re a writer,” she said, though I was old enough, and wise enough, never to use that term in relation to myself. Though I knew, and she might have also, that I had never written a single word that had any life.
As to the mother, also a long story: suffice to say, it wasn’t in an academic, or even a critique group setting. What she taught me was that the only thing I had to draw on was my own experience of the world. But, this didn’t mean I could only write about my own traumas, insecurities, angers and neuroses.
It meant I could only use myself as an instrument. An instrument of empathy. Because that’s exactly what my writing mother was: an instrument of empathy.
And with empathy, it’s not about me. Not about my petty rages, my political furies, or just getting back at that asshole in the checkout line or on the exit ramp. There’s still the voice that wants to rage and rant, but I choose to give it less power. Because it’s not about me.
Now, of course, you have to be a raging narcissist to be a writer. You have to believe someone might care about what you see and think and feel. Or you have to feel called; but, it’s the modern age, and we don’t like to talk about things like that.
Or, there’s a different angle: as someone pointed out to me recently (and I hope it’s true because I like the story), in Homer’s Odyssey the pronoun ‘I’ is only used twice. So we could say we are called by [insert your higher order preference here] or we could say that we are machines that can do nothing other than what we do (the post-modern, existentialist preference) but it all amounts to the same thing in the end. It’s not about me.
In The Hudsucker Proxy (second Coen Brothers reference), Norbert Barnes holds up a folded scrap of paper in his elevator pitch to a giant corporation. It’s his dream project, his great insight, the purpose of his life. Drawn on the scrap of paper: a perfect circle, and nothing else.
He knows what it means. He envisions a full scenario playing forward from his diagram. He’s childlike, innocent: a rube. But he knows something. He knows the circle on his folded scrap of paper. He’s been carrying it in his pocket for years.