There’s at least one myth that we all grow up with that becomes so intertwined with our lives that we have difficulty seeing it as a myth at all.
I’m talking about the myth of the many and the few.
We go to school, and from the first year a process called ‘teaching’ begins. This is the laying out before a class of children particular sets of data which the society, through government or local authorities or some other means, decides that children need to learn. In the beginning, these sets of data include basic things like letters and numbers and how to put them together; as things progress, children are introduced to institutions around them - the Fire Brigade, the police, doctors and nurses and so on - as well as learning a little about the weather and geography and other selected topics. But as more and more sets are presented, and even from very early on in the teaching process, something else begins to occur: some children are able to grasp these sets of data quickly, others more slowly, and some really struggle. Some are able to concentrate and understand with relative ease; some find themselves easily distracted and the whole subject of schooling rapidly becomes a chore.
Into this picture, examinations or tests are introduced at younger and younger ages, leading to a further differentiation between children, this time supposedly measurable and ‘scientific’.
It seems very natural that part of the way the school system operates is that children are grouped according to their biological age. This means though, that, as the months go by, there is an arbitrary pressure placed on teachers and children to reach certain points or expectations about where children ‘of that age’ are 'supposed to' be. By the age of five, for example, children are ‘supposed to’ be able to do certain things with numbers and to have grasped phonics (the sounds of letters) to a particular level. By this point, even before education has really gotten underway, the myth has become part of most people’s reality.
It’s the myth that only some people are able to ‘make it’, while others, often the majority, must struggle or ‘fail’.
The school system, at least in England, exacerbates this as the years go by: children are ‘graded’ in a general and somewhat forgiving way to begin with, but then the marks become more serious, like brands: certain children are deemed to be ‘low achievers’, while others are labelled as ‘high fliers’ and these and each group in between grow up with certain things being expected from them. Lower achievers often come with a presumption of bad behaviour; high fliers, it is assumed, will be good at everything. Those who neither spectacularly fail or spectacularly achieve have their own set of more bland expectations - they will ‘do all right’, neither especially triumphing nor crashing. Parents accept all of this, as much as teachers and everyone else: ‘of course’ it’s important what children ‘score’ in exams, especially towards the end of their teenage years, they say - those marks are ‘vital’ they say, as they are supposed to set children up 'for the rest of their lives'.
Whether or not those marks do actually mean more than the paper they are written on has been the subject of earlier articles. What I’m interested in here is the myth, the template, the set of assumptions which all of this fosters inside us.
For writers, this forms a particularly insidious background.
Most writers have decided to break away from society in some way. They strive to make it ‘on their own’, to survive on the bread that they can win with words that they put together, building a life for themselves based on what comes out of their minds. But a great many of them have had this myth of the many and the few so emblazoned into their sense of reality that the whole life of writing is pictured as a struggle: the struggle to write something ‘exceptional’, the struggle to get an agent or a publisher, the struggle to get published and then marketed to the masses. The template that many carry around with them unconsciously is based on their life experience so far - the perpetual and apparently inevitable separation of the few from the many, those who ‘make it’ from those who continually have to battle to exist.
Our whole society is to some extent structured around the same template. Just as we biologically pass on our DNA from one generation to the next, so this social template creates itself anew for the next generation, time after time. Largely because of the rolling forward of ineluctable Time, we are trapped in certain groupings and brandings from an early age: we are going to be heading for particular kinds of career and lifestyle based on how the pecking order developed in our early years.
And that’s what we buy into as writers: that there are a few ‘lucky ones’ who manage to ‘hit the jackpot’ and get published, widely read, and rich, while the majority of ‘us’, these struggling writers, have to work hard to exist and find it much more difficult to make the right contacts in the publishing world, let alone find enough readers.
‘But this isn’t a myth,’ some might protest. ‘This is the way things are.’
That it seems so is a testament to the power of this particular illusion.
In reality, this is a nonsense. My own experience and observation of people suggests something very different underneath this social sleight-of-hand. Each and every individual is uniquely able in some way. A person might have particular intellectual talents; another might possess strong physical skills; some have amazing artistic abilities. Many - a far greater number than the myth would permit us to consider - have combinations of all of the above and much more. Aspects of an individual’s qualities reveal themselves at different times in different circumstances; other characteristics blossom when particular ages are reached or pressures removed. There is, it seems, no real end to the capacity of a human individual to flourish in ways beyond common imagination.
A social template which demands a rigid attendance and adherence to a time-based structure tends to penalise or distort this underlying truth. Instead of everyone’s uniqueness being free to flourish at varied times or in individual conditions, the school system tends to try to press everyone into the same mould, to make them ‘productive citizens’ by the time they reach a certain biological age. There’s some utilitarian point to that, of course: a population can’t be just ‘left to develop at its own pace’ when labour and work and functions are needed. But the society as a whole pays a price for shoe-horning its populace into rigid channels like this.
Writers especially need to learn to relax. They firstly need to calm down about their own work and take time to practice, to find out the underlying principles operating behind great fiction and to play with those until they become their own; then they need to be saner about their own goals with the whole business of writing. ‘Being a best-selling author’, the aim of many, unstated and stated, is all very well, but at what cost? Are writers going to allow themselves some freedom to find out what they can do with fiction’s laws, or are they going to make the same mistakes that society at large makes and attempt to jam themselves into another template in order to try to ‘succeed’?
The world is changing. Opportunities have been opened up by technology in the last few decades which could see the template morph and the myth become transparent. It might even be possible for everyone to succeed, the few and the many together.