Sunday, June 20, 2010

Necessary Optimism

From outside the writer's circle, it's easy to see writers as pessimists.  Depressed lonely neurotic unkempt hard-drinking suicidal pessimists.  These types appear both in fiction (The Shining) and in real life (Ernest Hemingway).  Why would anyone want to become this kind of writer?  My answer (and we can argue about it, if you like) is that no one wants to become this kind of writer -- this is what writers turn into afterward.  It's like a second molting:  the first time was a change from mere human into a writer, and the second change was from a writer into a failure.  Failure as a writer, failure as a person.  Not my first choice.

From my perch on the edge of the writer's circle, not yet across the publishing threshold, things look different.  Don't get me wrong; I see a few pessimists, here and there in the fora, usually complaining about the injustice of their (usually first and not-yet-complete) novel not having been instantly bought in a million dollar book deal and an appearance on Oprah.  These people should quit whining and get to work writing  and learning.

It seems that you have to be an optimist to tackle something like a novel.  Why would you ever begin one if you were a pessimist?  The chance that it will lead to fame and fortune are minuscule, and if you're a realist, you don't consider fame and fortune.  (If you're a pessimist, you figure it's there, but they won't let you have any.)  I think there may be a link here, where pessimists tend to look forward to the destination, while optimists look forward to the journey.  If you're an optimist you think you can write a novel, one that's interesting, and ideally one that others will want to read.  Strike that.  If you're a true optimist, you don't use words like ideally, because the ideal is always assumed.

Assuming the ideal is an excellent way to approach writing a novel.  You'll want to pull back and employ a healthy level of skepticism once you get into contracts and such, but till then, being positive is the way to go.  What's the alternative?  Being a pessimist?  Most pessimists I know say they're not pessimists, they're just being realistic.  I'll admit I've said this a few times in my own life.  Being that kind of realist won't get you very far in writing a novel (or anywhere else), though.

I know a young woman who graduated from college a couple of years ago with a degree in psychology.  She's happy as a clam working as a manager in the food service industry, because "I get to use my psychology training every day."  Let's assume for a moment that no other jobs have been available because of the economy, and that either she's wasting her education or she's delusional about what a good fit her job is with her skills.  Well... why shouldn't she be happy?  If she didn't adopt the attitude she did, she'd be depressed instead.  It's the same situation either way, but she's chosen to be happy about it.  I admire that.  I'd pick delusional over depressed any day.

Many beginning novelists are in a similar situation.  We've been unable to finish a novel, or finished one that no one wants to read.  We've gotten 50,000 words written before we learned some key rule of grammar or story structure.  Should we be depressed at how much time we've wasted and how much work we have to throw away, and how very hard it all is?  Or should we be happy about the practice we've had, about the improvement in our writing that it brought, about how much better the novel we're working on now will be because of lessons learned?

One choice leaves you depressed, or just makes you walk away; the other puts a spring in your step and makes you excited for the future. 

Do you know any novelists you'd call pessimists?


  1. I oscillate between optimist and pessimist. When my writing is going well, I'm pumped up and can't wait to get to it each day. I visualize what the book will look like, who I'll dedicate it to. When I hit a snag that derails my progress, I tend to mope and wonder, what the heck ever made me think I could write a publishable book?

  2. Ah... I've been there. That's what I call the rollercoaster. It's a tough place to be (when going down, anyway), and a tough place for those around us, who begin to question our sanity more than usual. Seems unhealthy, doesn't it? Still, I'd rather be on the rollercoaster than in depression.