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Thursday, November 01, 2007


Who listens to their family?

It's a common complaint of submissions editors that every muppet thinks they can write because their friends and family have praised their efforts. 'My family think my work is really good' is one of the absolute last things to put in a submission letter, just below 'I realise this book needs some work but I'm hoping you'll recognise my potential' and above 'I'm sick of people screwing me over, so be warned I'm prepared to sue if you steal any of my ideas'. As a result, publishers tend to be rather irritable with the whole suggestion of families. They love their own families, of course, and in fact my editor got on excellently with my mother when they met at the launch party, but mention that your family has encouraged you to write on a covering letter, and you'll hear the publisher groan clear across London.

What can be lost sight of in all this is a basic fact: it's actually good that families are supportive.

Agents and publishers get tired of hearing families quoted as authorities on cover letters, and can get fed up with them for creating a false sense of entitlement in hopeless writers. But in a way, that's simply the price you have to pay, because here's the thing: it's very difficult for anybody to learn how to write without some encouragement. Being supported gives everybody more confidence, talented and untalented alike, and the talented ones need their confidence built up.

In her book on writing Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg includes a chapter called 'Who Gave You Permission?', in which she talks about the deep sense of relief you feel when someone whose opinion you respect praises your writing. By that act of praise, you're given permission. The permission is subliminal rather than overt, but it's there. When I wrote my first real short story at eighteen, I showed it first to my mother, who could be relied upon to be nice, and then to my father, who's been known to toss books across the garden if he thinks they're bad, and who believes in telling the truth. I crept upstairs trembling, and asked what he thought. He paused for a second, and said, 'You could be a proper writer.' If he hadn't, I might not have been here today.

Of course, an overworked editor won't thank such families for saying the same thing to writers whose work they can't stand. But suppose all families instead delivered a devastatingly frank professional judgement on work they were shown? It might weed out some of the hopeless cases, but a lot of gifted people would be also discouraged by the smackdowns their early, finding-their-feet efforts received, and would stop writing. If anything, I'd say, it would cull the promising more than the hopeless, as one element of talent is being aware that it won't look the same way to other people as it does to you, that you're not perfect, and that other people's reactions matter. Point out all the flaws in an early attempt too brutally, and the hopeful talent may see the justice of them all, lose confidence in their ability to do better, and give up. It's the insanely confident people who tend to write worst; people who have the sense listen to criticism may listen to it a little too well. There's a time for honest criticism, but there's also a time, early on, for support.

As with everything, it comes down to the basic fact that the only thing that you can judge by is the writing itself. Listening to your family is not in itself a sign of incompetence, as long as you can remember they're supposed to be partisan.

Something else to consider about families. If they don't support your writing habit, they will find ways to keep you from it and sabotage your writing time. They will try to make you choose between them and writing.

Now, of course, some writers use their family and the families need for "quality time" as an excuse not to write, but a supportive spouse and children can go a looooonnng way toward a successful career.

I would write with or without my family's support, simply because I must, but it certainly makes it a lot easier with them behind me.
This makes me think of what my dad always says to me when watching TV shows like X Factor or whatever. "Naomi, if you told me you wanted to go and sing on TV, I wouldn't let you."

This is kind of encouraging, as both my dad and I know I can't sing to save my life. So when he praises my writing, I feel like it must have some value, lol.
Of course, if your mother has lots of journalism and editorial experience, works at a magazine and has a book published (albeit nonfiction on motherhood) there's a good chance she gives some solid feedback.
Urg - Am I the only one here with young children? (rhetorical question, I know!)

A few years ago my two eldest finally started school and going to bed early, which gave me a good couple of hours writing time of an evening. Then along comes number three who, bless her, likes to climb on my lap, point at her mouth and say "Yum yum!" till about 11.00 pm. I love her just as much as the other two, but I can't wait for her to start playschool (next September) and get properly knackard during the day so I can have my writing time back!
people who have the sense listen to criticism may listen to it a little too well.

And if you listen to it well enough, it can keep you from even getting near the page to begin with, because you're afraid of failure. Which is pretty much the story of my entire writing life.
My friends and family are the hardest people to impress, complete strangers are much easier I tend to find.
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