Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.

17 thoughts on “Unsupportive Families”

  1. What a fascinating post. I can relate to this as I find my family treat my writing as another example of me not being connected with what they consider the real world. Its a sort of quaint hobby, but not reality. It always intrigued me when I was married that my then wife would deride and do all she could do to take me away from writing and in those days I was writing plays and musicals but oddly enough when my productions were successful she was there basking in the glory of it all.
    I think those who do not write find it hard to connect with the mindset of the writer, they have little comprehension of the joy, exhilaration we get from creating the scenarios we do. I so agree with your final sentence, life without writing is meaningless. So I keep shaping words and having a lot of fun doing so.

      1. I do relate Marina, and I agree our WP community are very supportive. I found it refreshing to read a post such as yours tonight as I find my family, mainly my kids now days treat my writing as something I do but they are not very understanding one interested. So I don’t talk about it much with them, that what you guys are for. Good luck with your writing, I enjoy reading your work.

  2. This is a great and brave blog post/essay. The opening pages of Claire Messud’s book was one of the most validating pieces I have read. It is telling that a woman’s declaration of anger stands out so much and makes such an impression. Wait ’til you read the last pages (no peeking). I have copied the first and last pages and stuck them up on my wall. I would guess that very person working to foster their own creative potential would have a story like Tommy’s, above. Since I started writing full time I have been stunned by the words and behavior of people I have known all my life. We can understand this, I suppose, because we know first hand how very difficult it is to step outside of the norm. People hate it when anyone does that because they themselves wish they could and don’t know how to. Keep going forward, leave them in your wake if you have to. Don’t apologize, don’t explain. We don’t have much time.

  3. Marina Sofia – You’re touching on one of the most difficult aspects of being a writer: making the time and space to do what it takes and keeping that dream. It’s all the more difficult if you don’t have a supportive family. Little wonder Austen hid her manuscripts! I think it’s essential for a writer to make it clear how important the writing is and not back down. It’s not ‘a little hobby.’ It’s not ‘a fun thing.’ It’s in one and a part of one. Love me, love my writing!

    1. And of course, our own worst enemy is our own inner voice, telling us this is ‘too self-indulgent’ or ‘too selfish’ or ‘not very good’.

  4. I don’t need to have a baby, I already have one. He’s 48 years old and he creates a sh*t storm of drama every time I get in the position where I have a few minutes to write (which isn’t very often because I am employed full time in a demanding technical job). This is despite the fact that I have supported him fully in his endeavors to start up companies and pursue his own hobbies.

    What is it that makes people so selfish that they seek to crater the one thing that gives us fulfillment? The Crazy Maker is currently sick in bed whining for me to come take care of him (after over doing it all weekend working on job and hobbies).

    My first book – two years in process – has languished for months….I’m tired of people who say they love me continue to sabotage me. What has been helpful for others (besides getting angry and resorting to screaming just to get a few minutes to write)?

    1. I hear your frustration!
      I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I still don’t seem to get my writing taken seriously by my family… But what I’ve seen working with some friends is that they set aside a certain time in their diary when they are not home, not available. Pressing business engagement, if they have to lie, and then they go to a library or coffee shop or some other quiet, productive corner and write. Sometimes even just for a walk to think about their next chapter. I try and do that sometimes, but feel too guilty when the children then complain that they don’t see me all day.
      Of course when the children do have me around, they then proceed to completely ignore me and go upstairs to play their own games.

  5. Thanks for writing about this. I read this yesterday and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I’d felt this before but never really nailed what it was. Mostly I find my family and friends don’t really understand why when I said I wanted to write a book, it didn’t then just appear published 6 months later. Or that it involves more than just writing one word after the other (although some days thats a great start!). I too have stopped talking about it very much unless I’m with other writers. But some days it would be nice to be able to celebrate the little successes – without having to explain myself. Writing is a bit like black magic, and I try and remember that we’re pretty lucky to be part of the inner circle.

    1. It’s a tough one – I find that even friends who’ve known me in a non-writerly capacity are not at all interested in my writerly progress or output. Unless, of course, I were to reach JK Rowling proportions, then they would boast they knew me first. I have another ‘amusing’ post about this that you might want to read:
      I’ve learnt to laugh at it now, but at the time it hit hard.

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