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Please Get Your Patriarchy Out of My Creativity

May 12, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I was driving to work and caught ten minutes of an NPR segment featuring some well-known writer or other.  Ashamedly, I haven’t yet been able to figure out who the writer was or what segment featured him, but as soon as I can I’ll update here with a link so we all know whom to write angry letters to.  In the meantime, what’s important to know, for this post, is that the writer was established and male, and that he once upon a time taught creative writing courses.  I tuned in at exactly the point when the interviewer asked the inevitable What advice did you give to students who wanted to become published authors? question.  And, in between a bit of advice about the publishing industry in general, Mr. Author utilized one of my least favorite writerly tropes.  He talked about attempting to discourage his students from entering the world of published writing, about telling them all of the negatives, because – and I’m pretty sure this is an exact quote, although I can’t find the source – Those who can be discouraged, should.

This is a favorite phrase with senior writers, as well as with people who have had intense success in other industries.  Those who can be discouraged aren’t good enough.  They aren’t the real writers/actors/artists/entrepreneurs.  Because a REAL writer/actor/artist/blahblahblah never gives up.  And all it really takes to succeed is determination!

I HATE this idea, and it’s one that has seeped very deeply into the American consciousness, allowing us to ignore the fact that a great deal of success in our society is determined by privilege.  It’s an attitude that presumes anyone who lacks “determination” must also, inevitably, lack talent.  It’s an attitude that presumes an equal playing field, one where the ONLY variable is how much gumption a person has.  And the equal playing field has always been a myth.  Always.

This attitude also involves the presumption that the approved, established industry is the final judge of whose work is valuable.  And that industry – be it publishing, art, or business – isn’t based on anything but money.  “Success” is defined by being published between two Random House-approved covers, by making sales and sitting on the right shelf at Barnes and Noble.  But there’s no reason, that I can see, to believe that a person who passes through that system is necessarily more talented or more worthwhile than a person who doesn’t.  If you want an example, just take a look at this.  It’s entirely possible that Tyra Banks can write books.  I’m not saying that she can’t.  But even if she can, her entry into the publishing industry is based on her recognizability, her saleability, not on her work.

As you might have guessed by now, some of my anger about this issue is deeply personal.  I would love to be a writer.  And although I’m not a genius, I believe I’m fairly talented.  I believe I could tell stories that people would want to hear, and I could tell them well.  And for a long time, I did have a great deal of determination.  Mary B herself can tell you that when I was young I probably would’ve climbed right across the backs of anyone who stood in the way of the publishing career I so desired.

But things get in the way.  Life gets in the way.  Sometimes practical decisions have to be made in place of dreamy ones.

As I talk about on here all the damned time, I was raped 4 years ago this month.  And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much my life has changed since that date, and how many things got lost along the way.  One of those things was my itching determination to develop a writing career.  Being raped, for me at least, had the effect of diminishing a great deal of my confidence.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about The Likeness, it made me jumpy and unstable most of the time.  It turned me into a basketcase.  Although underneath I am still the strident, confident person I was in my early 20s, maintaining that confidence takes twice the amount of energy that it used to.

And then, a year after my rape, I entered into a Very Bad Relationship with someone who diminished that confidence even more – someone who made me doubt my very existence and question all of my abilities.

Only now, after removing myself from that bad situation, am I even beginning to think about writing again.  It’s part of the reason I asked Mary B to start this blog with me – because I wanted a place to write that felt safe, where I could hide behind a mask for a while if I needed to.

So when I heard Mr. Senior Author’s voice through my radio, telling me that my lack of determination was equal to a lack of talent, that my self-discouragement was a sign I’m not really a writer, I wanted to punch my fist through the dash.  I wanted to shout him down, to tell him what I’ve been through.

Again, I’m not sure who he was.  He may have been through hardships, hardships even greater than mine.  And he may have overcome them.  I’m not here to compare scars.  All I’m saying is that it’s wrong to question the talent or ability or desire of a person who can’t make it beyond those hardships, whose creativity and sanity get jostled too much along the way.  Plenty of people are doing plenty of valuable work in all corners of the world and the net, and those people are not always part of the established art world.  They work on their own, for themselves and those they know.  They create and produce and speak and write and inspire, and they are no less talented simply because they refused the established road, the shiny path to “success” defined by capitalist visions of the world.

I’m a little angry right now, for some reason, and this isn’t coming out quite the way I’d intended.  I wanted to write something analytical about definitions of “success” in a patriarchal and capitalist system.  But for now I’m going to let the vitriol stand.  Might as well be honest about my reasons for thinking these things in the first place, right?  Then, hopefully, once the anger’s down on paper, I can  come back and tackle the issue from another angle.  Because I think it’s an important one.  Our definition of “success” in this country is a problematic one, one that needs to be held up to scrutiny if we wish for anything to change, if we wish for the playing field to even out even the slightest bit.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 2:25 pm

    I hate that, too. For so many reasons. I went through something similar with a writer’s workshop I went to. The people running it tore my manuscript apart. I left in tears, and told a friend who was a published author what had happened.

    “Oh yeah, they’re infamous for it. If they feel the least little bit threatened by you, they’ll rip you to shreds to try to scare you off. Don’t let it get you down. Take it as a compliment.”

    That whole “if you want to write you’ll make the time thing” also stings women, because if we’re already working full-time, then coming home and dealing with housework and kids and everything, what the hell do we give up to make the time? Sleep? I know I’m fortunate in that I have a room-mate and a husband who nearly all the cooking and their (sometimes more) fair share of the housework so I have time to write now. But we used to live with someone who treated us like live-in servants, and if I didn’t want to live in abject filth, I had to do housework, which ate up most of my writing time. Not to mention, my stress levels gave me the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever had.


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