My father is a writer. And by that I mean a person who spends an awful lot of time writing. In fact, because he is retired, he does nothing but watch TV, "day-trade" his stocks and write his novels. He seems to have very little need for human companionship beyond my mother. He has no friends, rarely visits family, belongs to no clubs, does not volunteer, does not leave the house for days and days at a time. Instead, he has devolved into a strange routine in which he sleeps and works on his books in shifts around the clock -- sleeping for a few hours, rising to work, then napping, then working again. He can go to bed at 3 a.m. one night and up again at 6 a.m., or asleep by 9 the next night and up at 3 a.m. to work. There is no pattern. Writing has become the focus of his life over the past five years. All of these books eventually get self-published.
As an author, you may think this a marvelous way to spend retirement. I am introverted enough to see its attraction, too. But here is the thing -- my father is not a good writer. He is not even a reader -- he prefers TV and movies to novels. He is a dabbler. He is a dabbler who wants to be rich and famous, but he always chooses arts in which he has no skill or training. His various projects, intended to earn him millions, have included writing music, writing screenplays and scripts for Hollywood, writing novels and nonfiction, and oil painting.
All of the output of these endeavors have been pretty terrible. His oil paintings were copies of Bob Ross paintings -- proficient but not destined to make him famous. He tried a few galleries before giving up. His screenplays are well plotted, but dialogue is terrible and characters stereotypes. No studio responded to his contacts. His books are also well plotted, but again, characterization, description and dialogue are just sooooo bad -- almost campy bad. Publishers don't bite, and so he self-publishes. And so on with each new artistic obsession. Eventually, he gets discouraged with his progress toward fame and gives up his dream of reaching it through that method, becomes deeply depressed for a few months, and then moves on to a new project.
It would be one thing if it were just for fun and self-exploration. But he genuinely believes his works are fantastic. He always reads everything there is to know about his new endeavors and he believes he knows it all. He won't take classes or join writers' groups because, of course, he knows more than the instructors or other students. They are never sufficiently an "expert" he can respect.
My dilemma is this: It is painful to watch, but it is even more painful to participate in. My father seems to crave our review and critique of each new product. But all my life we've walked on eggshells around my dad -- avoiding any hint of criticism or conflict or challenge because he just can't take it. In fact, he sees it even where there isn't any, and then rages and pouts and gets depressed. The family culture has revolved around placating him, not upsetting him, and avoiding direct confrontation at all costs. Even my own and my brother's spouses have reluctantly been sucked into the pattern.
And yet, he continues to solicit critique -- elaborate critique. He hands out drafts and pages of questions to guide our review, like a school English assignment. Things like "What is the theme and motif?" "Name three strengths and weaknesses." "How does this book compare to others you've read?" "Have I created suspense?" and so on. Trying to give only positive feedback results in his continual probing for more depth -- and it can be deuced hard to come up with a lot of positives. He is a bottomless well of need for approval and praise. On the last book, I procrastinated so long that he gave up on getting my feedback but my brother wasn't so lucky and was in the doghouse for a long time because of some very gentle suggestions for improvement. I was in the doghouse for my refusal, but I don't feel like I can get out of it this way again. I have 13 chapters on my desk, a page of questions to answer, and I could only get through five chapters -- it's truly terrible.
He's pressuring me for feedback. What do I do? I'm sick of lying! I'm sick of scrambling to phrase my responses just so, to avoid his depression or wrath. I'm sick of taking his craft seriously. I'm sick of pretending it will make him rich and famous. I'm sick of watching this cycle of obsession, delusions of grandeur, and depression again and again.
My dad is 65 years old. I love him, but he is narcissistic and has little self-insight. He won't change now. Can I? Can I be honest? Or should I avoid ... again?
No Critic for Old Men
Dear No Critic,
You are going to have to stop letting him do this.
You're going to have to refuse.
I'm not saying you have to write a position paper and present it to your dad.
It's more a matter of being completely firm within yourself: You are not going to read and critique your dad's manuscripts anymore. Period.
To begin, just make that pact with yourself. You're not going to do this anymore. So, then, it's done. The decision has been made.
As far as how to tell him, well, I hesitate to suggest any specific words. You do not want to get into a big discussion with him. You may want to talk with a family therapist about how to handle this. The main thing is: You just have to not do it.
Remember: This isn't about the artwork. This isn't about the craft, or the creative vision, or the talent. This is about your dad controlling the rest of you. You're just going to have to stand firm.
This is not easy, I know! Families have their ways of extracting information! I remember once trying to extricate myself from a sort of messy, manipulative situation in my family by calmly saying I had no position, that I could not take a stand and being told, "You can't refuse! You have to take a stand!"
That was shocking, and a little disorienting.
And yet I did it anyway. I recused myself from one of the ageless family debates. And nothing really happened to me. I came out OK. Here I am!
That moment helped me to see very clearly that some of the things that rule our lives are nothing but a set of other people's beliefs. We think the world will come crashing down if we make some choices, and make some refusals, but it won't really come crashing down. The world doesn't revolve around us and our little problems. It goes right along just fine. And, in particular, some personalities are so self-absorbed that they soon forget all about us. They make up stories about us, that we are this way or that way and can't help it, and then they forgive us eventually for being the way we are.
In the meantime, your family may make things difficult for you. You will have to just grin and bear it.
There are much deeper issues here, of course. But I do not want you to get into an argument with your dad, or risk exposing yourself to ridicule by telling him the truth -- which is that the reason this is so painful is that you want a genuine relationship with him. I fear such an approach might not get anywhere.
But is there any meaning or wisdom to be found in all this?
Well, when you realize how little you actually can do to change your dad, or fix him, or get him to listen to reason, you start to think that maybe people like your dad exist to remind us how utterly removed we are from one another. Maybe every now and then, like taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, we have to be reminded how big the distance is, how deep is the chasm, and yet how majestic. You can't cross it. No way. You just stand there looking across and marvel. Somebody else is over there across the canyon, outside of hailing distance, just a speck. That's my dad over there!
Well, but it's refreshing in a way, too. It means that we are unknowable to each other, and while that might seem frightening at first, it is also freeing. Yes, it tears at the bond between us, the sense of shared vision, but that sense of shared vision is a bit of an illusion anyway, isn't it? It is a manufactured consensus, the belief that when you and I both read the same Dostoevski story we both see the same man in his shabby room, or that when we listen to the same violin we hear the same music ... actually we are pretty much alone with our experiences. And as to the quality or lack of quality in his work, it reminds you how far each of us falls from the tree of perfection, how meager is our output, how crass are even those things that do get published, how far even our most perfect work is from having the genuine power of magic, or the power of those three sought-after totems in the Russian fairy tale I read this morning: the talking bird, the singing tree and the water of life.
How far we all are from producing work that is actual magic! How much we are all just mindlessly spinning the wheel, hoping one day it will spin some gold!
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What? You want more advice?