Scenes from a life
Three pleasures and a frustration

Conditional validation

A friend asked this, this morning:

Just read elsewhere someone say: "Like all 'creative' people, we need other people to validate us." And I wondered about this, and whether publication is the only, or ultimate, validation of a piece of work? And do all creative people need other people's validation? And if so, why?

and I've realised it's not as simple a question as you'd think. There's a lot of talk about believing in yourself, at the 'motivational' end of the Creative Writing word (I usually enjoy language change, but isn't 'motivational' a beastly word? Almost as awful as 'inspirational'. Whatever happened to 'motivating' and 'inspiring' - the humble, necessary verbal noun which used to be called, much more confusingly, a gerund? Sorry. Where was I?)

Believing in yourself implies that you don't rely on others to tell you if you can and should do something. That's hard to do when so much of the social and educational world has so much invested in 'success', which entails not daring to try things which might fail - from the school librarian who won't let you take out books which are 'too difficult' to the writing teacher who tells you to stick to a single point-of-view. So of course it's important to develop that self-belief, as a necessary step for anyone who wants to move any distance beyond the life they were brought up in.

Only of course the need for validation, if you want to call it that, is inherent in us from birth: parents and others show us how the world works, and how to survive and prosper in it, and that includes how to please them and how to do things they call good, clever, successful and interesting. But validation is more that approval, because in a culture formed by the Protestant work ethic it's about the idea that what you want to do is worth doing. Writers have the advantage that what they do is at least culturally respected, at least in principle, by everyone except the most philistine Thatcherite, even if any individual writer is considered too trashy to deserve shop-space, or too up-its-own-arse to deserve discussion.

Publication is one kind of validation: someone has decided that some people will like your writing enough to pay for it, and in a capitalist society that's a very loud accolade. But it certainly isn't the only kind: last night at Goldsmiths Ian McEwan was saying that the year he spent at UEA doing an MA in Comparative Literature (not Creative Writing) changed his life because of the few minutes a few times when Malcolm Bradbury and/or Angus Wilson read his fiction, handed it back, and said, 'It's good. Keep going.' And your father - who to your knowledge hasn't read a book in thirty years - reading your book, is another kind of validation again.

And the last thing that real, powerful, life-changing validation is, is a mere pat on the back. Any four year old, waving the latest painting and asking for it to be seen, learns to tell the difference between a conversation about why the cat is in the sky, and a 'lovely darling' tossed over its cooking mother's shoulder. The issue is being heard, in as much detail as possible. Never mind 'lovely darling', rigorous critiquing, which pays you the compliment of assuming you can and want to get better, can be the most life-enhancing of all, however painful at the time. As Harry Bingham, who runs Writers Workshop, once said to me, 'Except for the rare few who go on to be published and have an editor, your report is probably the most attention anyone is ever going to pay to their writing,' and it's true, I know, because I've felt the joy of getting that attention in my time, and I can hear it in the voices of my clients when we discuss the report. (And true, too, of my MPhil and I hope PhD vivas, however scary.)

That's it, really, isn't it: we write to be heard, just as much as a singer sings. When no one's listening to a singer, she calls it practising, and the real thing doesn't happen till she gets an audience, if only an audience of one teacher. The teacher, of course, is a very particular audience, and that's key as well: validation from someone whose judgement of your art-form you respect is a very different thing. We need unconditional love from our parents to feel that we're valid people but (unless they're writers themselves which is a wholly different situation and not necessarily an easier one) it's the conditional validation of people in our field - even just well-read, articulate fans of the kind of novel we write, or the publisher of a tiny literary mag who pays you £50 for a story it took you months to write - that what we write, however beginnery, has merit, is 'worth it', that we need just as much.