As writers, we’re great at generating meaning. We tell stories to help us make sense of the world. Events that might otherwise seem chaotic and random are made neat by narrative.
Unfortunately, not all the stories we writers tell ourselves—or hear told—are true or useful. In fact, some of them are downright scary:
“No one supported my creativity when I was a kid; that means I didn’t have any potential.”
“My spouse doesn’t want to read my work; that must mean I suck.”
“The publishing world is biased against people like me; it’s hopeless to even try.”
“There’s so much competition out there; I’ll never be able to distinguish myself.”
Okay, sure, these are not exactly the premise for a new Saw movie, but they can still keep you up at night.
In addition to the scary stories we generate in our own minds, we also face another nefarious type of story: stereotypes.
I’m sure, no matter who you are, it doesn’t take more than a split second to conjure a stereotype that is applied to you based on some category—your gender, age, race, ability, etc. And it’s such a load of horse pucky, right?? You are not a stereotype. None of us are.
Unfortunately, the bad news is…we’re primed to be influenced by stereotypes.
According to social science research, stereotypes have the power to genuinely influence our thoughts and abilities. Research has found that people behave in stereotypical ways when their stereotypes were unconsciously primed:
> Researchers found that when African American college students were reminded of their race prior to taking a standardized test, their scores dropped by 50 percent.
> When Asian American women were primed prior to taking a math test, they performed better when reminded they were Asian (i.e., “Asian people are good at math”) and performed worse when reminded they were female (i.e., “Women are bad at math”).
> Elderly people who were primed with age-negative terms (“dementia,” “senility”) experienced memory deficits, while those who were primed with age-positive terms (“wisdom,” “experience”) experienced an enhanced memory performance.*
In other words, stereotypes beget stereotypical behavior—whether you want them to or not.
In turn, stereotypical behavior contributes to the persistence of the stereotypes.
For example, say you’re a woman writer and you’re bombarded with stories about sexism in publishing. You’re at risk of getting demoralized and giving up on your writing. Which is both a product of and a contributor to the stereotype that says “women can’t make it in publishing.” Same goes for people of color, older folks, and any other group that is victim to pernicious stereotyping.
You know on a logical, conscious level that you are not a stereotype. Each of us is an individual—vastly more complex and nuanced than any stereotype—but we live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by stories that tell us otherwise.
For writers, it doesn’t help that most us are sensitive folks. We’ve got eyes, ears, and hearts open to the world, because that’s where we’re getting our inspiration. Writing is a cooperative act that can only be done in tandem with a reader, and our readers live in the world. We can’t opt out of the world if we want our writing to make a mark on it.
Better stories are out there. Here’s how to find them.
I realize that, ironically, just by reading this article, you may have called to mind a negative stereotype about “people like you,” and be temporarily primed to identify with it. Sorry about that. Let’s move away from the gloom and doom, shall we? :)
As usual, we can all learn a little something from the wonderful Mr. Rogers:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world." (From fredrogers.org)
In other words, train yourself to focus on the good stuff in life. Focus on the stories that defy limiting stereotypes and nourish us as powerful, limitless individuals.
Here are a few ways to go about doing this in everyday life:
Go on Your Own Hero’s Journey
Acknowledge that, no matter who you are, you’re fighting stereotypes. Commit yourself to being a hero in that fight. When you think of yourself as a hero—instead of as a victim of uncontrollable outside forces—you make an empowering internal shift. You’ll have more courage to overcome the inevitable challenges you’ll face on your journey.
Take a Break from Media
Log off. Take a sabbatical from anything that inflames your insecurities and reminds you of stereotypes that you’re sensitive to. I’m passionate about gender equality, but I can’t read too much about it before I get overwhelmed and depressed by how much work is still left to do on that front. Ditto for almost anything political.
If you can’t log off completely, balance the bad with the good. Check out websites like the Good News Network that tip the scales back in balance by reminding us that the vast majority of people out there are decent.
Surround Yourself with People Who Believe in You
Remember, you’re the hero on this journey, and heroes always have helpers. Who are your Hermione and Ron? Who’s your Samwise? Cherish these people and pay attention to them—their support and their belief in you will help create an armor against the slings and arrows of the critics inside your head and out in the world.
The hardest part of writing is the inner game.
Don’t make it harder than it has to be by telling yourself limiting stories or allowing the haters unrestricted access to you, online or offline. Protect your mental space, fortify your courage, and venture headlong into the hero’s journey that awaits you.
* All examples from Margaret Shih, et al., “Stereotype Performance Boosts: The Impact of Self-Relevance and the Manner of Stereotype Activation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2002, vol. 83, no. 3, 638–647: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.419.7462&rep=rep1&type=pdf.