The Uses of Disagreeableness

Many bloggers have posted about the New Year and their resolutions for it —  While some have been grandiose, more have been modest or thoughtful. That’s Fact #1.

Many bloggers have ambitions about writing, whether it is to achieve a full-length book or simpler pieces, as the project “River of Stones,” which a number of bloggers I follow have signed on for.  That’s Fact #2.

So far I haven’t seen anywhere this awareness that I found on The Writer’s Almanac, the daily e-letter I’ve praised here before (and will continue to do so).  It’s a quote from writer Alison Lurie. In her novel Real People (1969), she wrote: “… you can’t write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. And I don’t want even to try anymore. I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.”

That’s Fact #3, and what I want to do is alert my fellow bloggers with writing ambitions, especially the women, to be careful, not to veer too far off onto the path of niceness, sensitivity, fineness, kindness, sterling qualities. Not to refine yourself out of humanity, not to strive to be more, other, better than you are. YOU, as you are, that’s the true path.

I say this to you because the iron sank deep into the soul when my first novel was published in 1979 (Going to Jerusalem, Simon & Schuster). My enthusiastic editor asked a distinguished woman writer, a friend of hers, to review it. The friend refused, and I’ve never forgotten why: “I see why you want me to like it. But it’s too nice.”

I was raised to be a nice little girl, a nice young woman, an agreeable and unselfish and if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-don’t-say-anything kind of person. To some extent I’ve chipped away at this prison, but will probably never in what remains of my lifetime be able to demolish it totally.

Therefore my New Year’s wish for you is to know and stretch every limb and muscle and trait you possess, the nice and the nasty, the loves and the hates, the grand and the petty, the strengths and the weaknesses. When you write, write deep, don’t be afraid, look at everything unwincing, and embrace it, embrace it all! You’ll be a better writer for it.

(Maybe none of you needs to hear this, maybe current generations are fearless from the cradle.  At any rate, I needed to say it. Thanks for listening, anyone who is. And no, this isn’t me, but she’s my new icon!)

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17 Responses to The Uses of Disagreeableness

  1. Rebekah says:

    As I even wrote about in a blog, quite some time ago, I have NO ambitions whatsoever to become a writer. There are many of them around WP though.

    I’d probably write differently were I to write under a «pen name» … i.e. totally anonymously. As things stand today, there are people I know in real life that read my blog.

    • Touch2Touch says:

      That’s certainly understandable, Rebekah. I think what I mean is more that — not the literal details necessarily — but the emotions, the feelings, the truth of how one understands something, is transmitted. Fearlessly and honestly —
      I think actually that you often do this.

  2. 2e0mca says:

    Hopefully some of my anger and frustration comes out in my football posts (though without the language of the terraces) 😉 I think you have raised a valid point.

  3. Julia says:

    Well, this member of at least one of the younger generations still needs to hear this. Thanks!

  4. Pauline says:

    This post made me hark back to some criticism I received when I was still writing columns for publication. One fellow wrote that I was a Pollyanna, always looking on the bright or the funny side, never telling things the way they really must have happened. Another reader wrote that she did not want to read about my trials and tribulations, thank you, she had enough of her own and if I couldn’t be cheerful I should just shut up. (My response to them both was that if they did not like what they were reading they could always put the paper down.)

    I think I understand what you’re saying here – that when we write we should be true to who we really are, that we should not be afraid to express what we think though we may raise eyebrows (and tempers) when we do. That our words should be honest, not glossed over to satisfy a perceived readership. And I agree – life is not always pleasant, nor are we. You’re speaking of the Andy Rooney style, are you not?

    • Touch2Touch says:

      I don’t think I’m speaking of anyone’s style in particular. I may be speaking more of fiction actually, and writing about subjects as they are, and about things one thinks about, nice or not.
      For instance, I think about Philip Roth. Now I don’t like his attitude toward women, and I hate a lot of his subject matter, but the man can write like a son-of-a-bitch. He got loads of flak from family and Jewish community etc etc and paid no mind whatever. He wrote what he wrote.
      I’m not necessarily advocating writing unpleasant or shocking or coarse or nasty. I think I’m advocating feeling the freedom to if I so chose. And I never have felt that free, and perhaps still don’t completely. The inhibition that lives in my mind is a sufficient killer, no outside censor needed. And I’ve always felt part of that was socialization of women. Frankly, I still think so, even in these enlightened times.
      I loved Erma Bombeck, and she was funny and all that good stuff. She didn’t let it all hang out, either, as we found out after she died. But I found her genuine, and funny was what she was writing, but it always had force and energy (which is what truth provides).
      As to your two readers, the one who labeled you Pollyanna and the other who objected to your trials and tribulations — that just shouts out that you might as well write to please yourself, at least that way you’re sure to please SOMEBODY. (As the old saying has it.)

      The other thing I kind of had in mind was what in a sour mood (talk about letting it all hang out) I think of as arty-fartsy “fine” writing and sentimentality, the lapidary style. Didn’t the 18th century call those sorts of writers Precieuses? Personal prejudice only, this is. And yet — I do mean it. You often write small exquisite cameos, but they are never sentimental, and always have an originality that takes the breath away. They’re always tough-minded, however poetic. So it can be done — but frankly, I think it can be done by only a very few people who work extremely hard at doing so. Maybe it’s as simple as your meaning every word you say.

      I think I better climb down off my soapbox!!!!!!

      • Pauline says:

        There are times when I miss face-to-face conversations and then there are times like this where I treasure the time to digest words, or mull them over, or peer at them from different angles…

        I mentioned Andy Rooney more for his good-natured but genuine rambles about things he thought hard about, much like Erma Bombeck’s humorous takes. “Preciousness” is hard to take, I agree. I like reality with its beauty amid the grit, not simpering wit and manufactured sap but, having said that, I confess I never made it too far past chapter three in any Philip Roth novel, not because he couldn’t write well but because I found it hard to cultivate patience with his subject matter and his sometimes brutal tone.

        The inhibition that lives in your mind lives in mine, too – a product of our times. That may be what keeps some people from writing from their depths – the fear that they might offend or that they will be thought of as offensive. Or perhaps it stems from a lack of a genuine experience with coarseness or brutality. There are those who refuse to see or talk about unpleasantness because they think they can avoid it if they refuse to make it real. Those who write from a deep understanding, from raw, unedited experience, from that passionate place that lurks under the veneer of sociability, are the writers who move others, who touch the place of tacit agreement in us. They do it deliberately, looking for a response, a visceral reaction. They don’t want to be liked, necessarily, but they do want to be heard, and to be considered.

        Thank you for the compliments.

      • Touch2Touch says:

        Thank you for this long and reflective response. Like you, I cherish the conversation.

        “….the writers who move others, who touch the place of tacit agreement in us. They do it deliberately, looking for a response, a visceral reaction…”
        You state here so clearly my goal as a writer. For one thing, it alleviates loneliness — I am not the only one in the world, I am not so weird, there are others like me — For another, it can validate my existence — something I reveal is of use to another person.

        But beyond those, which are “practical” reasons, you might say, there might be this indefinable one, to honor the gift of life within me. That I live and breathe and feel and think, miracles of ordinary existence, maybe writing expresses my joy in these abilities, my gratitude for them. This is a new thought, its wings are still damp, and I don’t know how it will turn out —

        Again, thanks for everything, Pauline.

  5. Pauline says:

    Years ago I read an account of a stray dog discovered cowering under a farm vehicle when the author and her husband returned home from town one day. The woman reported that she couldn’t coax the dog out with food but when she sat down on the ground, the dog came to her, put its head in her lap and whined, moaned, cried. Then it ran off and was not seen again. “I believe it just needed to tell its story,” said the author. “I believe we all do.”

    Perhaps that’s what drives us then – the need to tell our story, whether its with tears or joy or both. In doing that, we we do what you call “honoring the gift of life.” That intense gratitude makes us want to share!

  6. Pingback: The true path « cross-ties

  7. Stef says:

    Regardless of whether you needed to write this, I needed to hear it! I love your line, “When you write, write deep, don’t be afraid, look at everything unwincing, and embrace it, embrace it all! You’ll be a better writer for it.” – except I might replace the word “write” with “live”. 🙂

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