Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why It's Natural to Need Help

Here’s to The Helpers —

A Lone Wolf Sets Out: 
In my earlier life a driving passion and talent for the theater led me to believe I’d pursue a career as an actor, but in the end it was the written component of drama that drew me into literature. Always somewhat ill at ease in the communal, collaborative atmosphere of the thespian world, I found in the more secret art of writing a quietude, concentration, and privacy that appealed to my solitary nature. Here was something you could do (perhaps had to do?) alone.

Writing required no facilities, no stage lights or auditorium seating, no orchestra pits, no janitors to tidy the lavatories. Most importantly, perhaps, it required no return at the box office. String together a few healthy advances and you were set (after all, you weren’t aiming for world domination). As a writer you didn’t have to fit your life into a rehearsal calendar or the matrix of personalities (outsized egos amongst them) that make up a theatrical cast. Writing required nobody else’s presence. The writer could be cast, crew, director, conductor, usher, and janitor — all in one, and all it took was pen and paper, discipline, and yes, self-reliance.

Given those basic tools plus a strong commitment to excellence, it looked like a writer really could “make it” alone and enjoy the gratification of success earned by pure individual merit as well as the liberty of being one’s own man.

I embraced this vision early, and believed that in doing so I was parting ways with the false American Dream, a.k.a.: the rat race. No nine-to-five or gold watch for me, thank you very much (even if I worked full-time to pay the bills — and for periods I did — it would not be my employment that defined me, but my calling as a writer; this I determined early, and so it was).

It was a useful vision in its way, and galvanized me to great productivity. Later on, however, even after successfully completing and publishing numerous works, I developed a lurking suspicion that my Lone Wolf outlook might be a bit flawed. Most prominently, it seemed to engender mild but undeniable feelings of humiliation whenever I filled out grant or fellowship applications. And months later, receiving the form letter containing the phrase “your application was not successful,” a strange dejection would dog me for days: Some Lone Wolf you are! Spurned Puppy is more like it.

Something was out of joint.

Recently, upon reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, it occurred to me that my early go-it-alone vision was never really a break with the American Dream, but more precisely a variation upon it. That is to say, I had subscribed to the (western capitalist) idea that one succeeds alone.

Thornton Wilder once described American individualism thusly: 
"The inability to draw strength from any dependency."
I had crept dangerously close to feeling ashamed of myself for seeking, or needing to seek, help.

Success Myths: 
In Outliers Gladwell encourages us to see through our culture’s success myths, and presents numerous compelling case-studies to help us do so. It seems to me his message is particularly beneficial in a present moment rife with job loss.
"In the autobiographies published every year by the billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness. … [But] people don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." 
Later he goes on:
"The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think Outliers [Gladwell's term for the brilliantly successful] spring naturally from the earth."
Meritocracy: “Those Worthy of Success Should Need No Help”:
America, we are encouraged to believe, is a pure meritocracy. But we do well to remember — especially in tough economic times like now — that faith in meritocracy is often a recipe for unhappiness, for as Alain de Botton eloquently reminds us in his remarkable book Status Anxiety:

"In a meritocratic world in which well-paid jobs [can] be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money [begins] to look like a sound signifier of character. The rich are not only wealthier, it seem[s]; they might also be plain better."
De Botton quotes this creepy sentiment from Andrew Carnegie, written in the latter’s 1920 Autobiography:
"Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do."
Anti-Gladwellian myths have long obtained all around us:
  • The self-made icons of success did it on their own
  • Success is won by individual virtue and determination
  • To need help is to be unworthy of success
As these success-myths persist, the following equation too often applies:

Belief in myth of self-made success + Belief in meritocracy = Shame/Disillusionment/Despair/Resignation

The Lone Wolf Was Never Really Alone:
Though it’s true that the discipline of writing must ultimately be honed and matured in solitude, the sustainment of this endeavor calls for help, be it moral or financial, from beyond the writer’s solitary zone. The bracing encouragement of friends and loved ones, the inspiration of teachers or literary luminaries long dead, and indeed, the material assistance of grants and endowments — all are essential to the writer’s survival and vitality.

I may give my best, do my all, and still need help. We all need it sometimes. Without the unfailing support and encouragement of my wife it would have been immeasurably more difficult for me to write and publish two novels before I was thirty. This is just the tip of the iceberg of my moral debts.

This month I’ve partnered with United States Artists to raise funds for my latest book, which will be something of a special offering: an illustrated, limited edition short story collection. In the two weeks since the fundraiser launched, 27 supporters have come forward to take us 45% of the way to the funding goal. Here’s to USA for helping out artists like me — and here’s to all those who have so generously lent their support so far, whether by pledging, helping me spread the word, or both.

I have not done and cannot do it alone. That, paradoxically, is a freeing thought.