Monday, March 26, 2018

Resilience and writing

We hear a lot these days about resilience in children, how to encourage it, how to make them stronger, as if there is a magic spell to be woven. After a lot of research on over-protectiveness and anxiety issues in children, which I won’t go into here, I concluded that growing resilience is a long-term endeavour, perhaps even life-long. It grows through testing, through meeting challenges rather than avoiding them, through feeling the fear and doing it anyway (which was the topic of a lot of self help books a few years ago).

It’s hard for parents to let go, to let their kids make mistakes, feel afraid, fail, be a loser sometimes. Of course kids will stuff up. We all did, and we all do now. To use another well-worn phrase, that is nevertheless true, the only thing worse than failing is never trying in the first place.

I keep this in mind with all of my writing students. It’s not up to me to decide who is a ‘real writer’ and who isn’t. Why should I judge a writer’s dreams? If I were a magazine editor (which I have been, of a poetry journal) or a book publisher, I could only make decisions about the manuscripts in front of me, the ones I have to decide will or might sell. I still couldn’t make a decision on whether the writer was a writer or not. Because people learn and grow and improve their skills, and what might not be publishable now could well be publishable in five years time.

We all know this, just as we know that it takes perseverance to be a writer. I used to use that word a lot – now I want to use the word resilience. Resilience to me means both strength and resolve, it implies perseverance, but it also means the ability to bounce back, or walk back, or crawl back. To take what is dished out or what happens to you, and recover.

You can’t recover if you start out afraid and anxious and worried, and with no innate or learned ability to grow and overcome. If your childhood has been about being told you will not achieve anything, or that you’re not worthy, that’s what you have to overcome as an adult. That childhood experience wasn’t about helping you learn resilience, that was about cutting you down. Or if you lost at something and were told, ‘Of course you are a winner, everyone who tries is a winner’, you didn’t learn to lose and get up again. You knew in your child’s heart that the platitude wasn’t true, and so now you have nothing solid inside to fall back on, to stand on so you can eventually stand up again. You have to learn to lose, and then learn that you can and will do better next time, not that next time your parent will find someone who will let you win.

Resilience is not ego. Ego says, ‘I’m great already and I don’t need to learn, I just need somebody intelligent to recognise my greatness, my genius.’ There are lots of egos in writing. In my classes these are the people who refuse to learn grammar and punctuation, because their genius will shine in spite of poor sentences. They are the people who won’t participate in workshopping, or who dismiss everyone’s feedback. They are the ones who don’t collect their assignments with the grades and comments on them because they don’t want to acknowledge there is more work to be done.

In a writing class, where there is workshopping, it can be the scariest thing to put your work out there for others to read and comment on. A good workshop is supportive but critically constructive and helpful. Only the egoist presents something they think is already perfect, and waits for the pats on the back (which usually don’t come). In a good workshop, everyone sees everyone else doing the same thing – being afraid but putting their work out there, receiving feedback, offering feedback, trying to learn how to do better.

Then the class finishes and it’s just you and the publishing world. This is where resilience really comes in, when you have to face rejections. When you have to put your heart into your writing, and then receive a form letter that says ‘No.’ There are a lot of ways for publishers, editors and agents to say no. You have to believe in your own voice, your own need or desire or compulsion to tell a story, your own ability to tell it in the best way you can. While understanding that your best at this point might not be publishable.

Ego might say, ‘What do they know? I’ve got friends who say my stuff is terrific, so I’m going to self-publish and sell millions.’ Resilience says, ‘I’m not there yet, but I will be one day. I’m going to learn more, try harder, write better.’

Craig Harper, a personal trainer who is now a motivational speaker, talks about how what we are told about ourselves in childhood becomes hard-wired into us, and how overcoming that wrong belief is one of the hardest jobs we can tackle. If what you heard as a child is some form of ‘You can’t do that’, whether it’s ‘You can’t do that because you’re hopeless’ or ‘You can’t do that so let me do it for you because I’m afraid for you’, growing your own resilience will be one of the biggest and most important things you undertake as a writer.

It may never get easier. You might have to meet that challenge every day of your writing life. You might have periods where it gets the better of you and you give up writing. I’ve seen some people give up and never start again. There will always be some reason you can recite about why, but at its heart, the reason will be back in your childhood. That’s what you have to overcome – not a lack of talent or a publishing industry that’s ‘against you’. It’s all about you.

As children, we grew resilient by being allowed to try new things, face what we were afraid of (even if it was only a scary story), or simply have a go. That didn’t mean we did it all alone. Our parents were there to pick us up, put a Bandaid on our knee, dry our tears. After we’d tried our hardest. I’m glad I grew up on a farm where I could pretty much run around and do what I wanted (within reason). It wasn’t a perfect childhood by any means, but I’ve come to believe it gave me a lot of benefits that I hadn’t realised before now.

Can we unlearn childhood self-beliefs? Can we become resilient as adults? I think so – like I said, it’s a lifelong challenge, to keep getting up when you’re knocked down. It’s not too late to learn. A supportive group of friends, using affirmations, creating small challenges and goals that teach you how to achieve and learn and grow, perhaps even a good psychologist who will teach you ways to become resilient. Facing your writer’s fears on a regular basis – sending things to competitions, sending them to journals, sending them to publishers. Workshopping in a good group. Finding an accountability partner or mentor who inspires you not to give up.

Resilience is not set in concrete. That too easily cracks or shatters. Resilience is made of rubber. Or find your own metaphor – the tree that bends instead of breaking perhaps.
I don’t want to end this with some kind of motivational homily, so I’ll just say go and read Phillip Larkin’s poem, ‘This be the verse’. If nothing else, it might make you laugh! (But just warning you there is a four letter word in it.)