A few years ago (okay, more than a few), Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, about the near impossibility of making it as a single person trying to live off of a low wage position (like Wal-Mart). She did this by actually spending a year herself, a prize-winning novelist, trying to live solely off of what she could make from "entry level" positions. It's a fascinating book and one I would highly recommend. Intellectually knowing some of the things she talks about in the book before reading it still did not prepare me for her recount of the reality of the situation. Even having gone through some of the experiences she did (I worked at Toys 'R' us in two different states), her book still opened my eyes to the reality she talks about.
I mention Nickel and Dimed, here, because I think it goes well with her latest book: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. But I'll get to that in a moment.
I have been fed up with the whole positive thinking thing for years and years. A large part of the reason my wife and I no longer attend church is because of the prosperity doctrine (the religious take on positive thinking) and its prevalence in the modern church. It actually makes me sick. Entering the writing world, now, I'm experiencing the positive thinking movement from a whole new angle, and it's not making me any happier than previous brushes with it in other venues. From that perspective, I think this may be an important book for writers to read. Despite claims from popular psychology that if you just stay positive, you will get what you want, most research actually shows that having a realistic view point is healthier and more likely to get you where you want to go.
Let me just say, though, that, if you are someone that believes in positive psychology, you will hate this book.
She starts with her own eye-opening experience with positive thinking. As a cancer patient. There is a notion in the cancer community, especially the breast cancer community, that the way to beat cancer to is "stay positive." If you stay positive, the cancer can not win. And, if it does, it was because the patient allowed in enough negative thoughts that the cancer was able to win. From there, she details the original rise of positive thinking back in the 1800s and how it has evolved to what it is today.
Now, I relate Bright-sided to Nickel and Dimed because of the recent (by recent, I mean the last 30 years) rise of positive thinking in the business world. Back in the 80s, when companies realized they could make money from down-sizing their employees, they needed something, anything, to keep the left over work force not just working for them but happy to be there working for them despite the fact that they no longer had any job security. The answer? Positive thinking. Large companies began bringing in positive thinking coaches to affirm the remaining employees that they were there because they were "worthy." The way to get ahead was to be a bigger fish and to work harder. The people that had been down-sized were down-sized because they just weren't good enough (of course, the actual truth of that is that most often the choices of who would stay and go were completely arbitrary, completely unrelated to performance).
All of this positive thinking in the work place resulted in the people at the top completely buying into it themselves. Good things, and only good things, come to those who stay positive. Some of the business scenarios she talks about are truly, truly frightening. And all of this positive thinking lead directly to the economic collapse we are all currently wallowing in. The direct tie-in to Nickel and Dimed? In the 60s, the average difference in pay between the lowest paid employee and the highest paid employee in a company was a mere ratio of 1:24. Yes, I say mere, although, to me, that seems a bit staggering. That difference today? Greater than 1:300. I can't even comprehend that. But the people at the top not only don't see anything wrong with this, they think they deserve it. By the virtue of their positive thinking.
There's a section on the rise in the prosperity doctrine in the church, too. The idea that God is nothing more than a vending machine. You put in your positive thoughts and God gives you stuff you want. I could rant about this for a while. How none of this is Biblical. How it's all just more life coach non-sense to raise money. But, you know, you can read the book. Or watch it on TV. There are any number of prosperity preachers you can tune into.
The last section deals with the rise of popular psychology. Also a money making scheme. I have always, since I was a kid, held science as something close to sacred. Scientists were objective. They looked at the data. They didn't make emotional decisions about the data or try to skew the data to prove their point. They didn't hold those kinds of beliefs. Because science isn't about what we believe, it's about what is. Right? I wish I could still believe that. However, we continue to get news about how this scientist or that research team falsified data to support various claims. This goes back decades. As it turns out, positive psychology has no data to support any of its claims. Some data may suggest correlations, but there is no research that actually shows that any of what positive psychology says is true is, actually, true. Because I don't have the book in front of me (it's out on loan), I'll paraphrase what one positive psychologist said to Ehrenreich: "The research/science hasn't caught up to the claims (of positive psychology)." In true positive thinking form, though, they fully believe that some day their research will bear fruit and prove their claims.
Writing is a tough field, especially today when the publishing industry is slowly imploding and seems unwilling to do anything about it. I imagine the guys at the top are caught in the same positive thinking bubbles that the guys responsible for the economic implosion, especially the housing industry, were caught in. I think it's important that we, as the writers, not get caught in that same bubble. In a field where only 1 in 1000 make it (in the traditional sense), we need to be realistic, not cling to positivity. No, I'm not saying to give up. I am saying that the way to make it as a writer is determination and perseverance. Thinking happy thoughts will not get you published. Keeping at it will.