Conformity and the Writer

So, Sarah blogs here about the lies, damned lies, and funny statistics used to keep the non-favored down and quiet, and over at her place about the ever-growing tendency to medicate the oddlings into compliance (which not only damages the oddlings, it does bugger all for those unfortunate souls who really can’t function in society at large (or small, or medium for that matter)). There goes any attempt I was going to make towards a nice, non-ranting post about writing craft.

Oh, well.

This is a stultifying time. Outside small, mostly self-selected enclaves of oddities (like this place – we don’t call it the Mad Genius Club for nothing), the demand is not just that you follow whatever the rules are. It’s that you kiss up to those in power, imitate their habits and beliefs, and basically brown-nose your way to success. The Process is more important than the result.

Don’t get me wrong: a consistent process matters when it comes to things that need to be consistent and have the same basic standards. Things like mass-produced widgets or even – $DEITY$ protect me – a typo of programmers all working from the same source material and modifying it at a rate that gives good testers hives. Even writing, because the consistent process is the framework that you don’t need to think about, so it becomes the launching pad for all those interesting flights of imagination.

Where things come unglued is this insane notion that because something works for you, it must not only be right, but be the only way it can possibly work for anyone, and then trying to make everyone do it that way.

It’s something those of a certain political persuasion (known to me as wannabedictator, official political affiliation be damned. It’s dictatorship when they arrest you for having non-approved sex as much as when they ban supersized soda. Both are someone who thinks X is good imposing their view on everyone else) are horribly prone to, and it’s a big part of why so much in the land of traditional publishing stinks worse than week-old shrimp in midsummer.

Not that the movers and shakers of the industry intended to gut it and replace the guts with boiled tapioca. It happened because a critical mass (not to be confused with the physics term of the same name, although there are certain similarities) of people from the same basic background with the same basic beliefs all wound up in the same industry at more or less the same time (Yes, otherwise known as the boomer/new wave generation). They all thought the same way, and so did everyone else they knew, so it never occurred to them that anyone might think, do or need anything different.

The natural tendency of people who depend on the goodwill of those in power to echo their prejudices back at them only amplified things, leading to the bizarre world-view that permeates so many traditionally published pieces. The editors pick the books that show their views, so the writers who get picked up try to write more like that. With no-one (the perennial exception of Baen doesn’t count, here. Baen has been marginalized by the rest for years) who saw things differently able to get inside the bubble (and don’t even think about breaking it. By now the establishment will defend its bubble to death and insanity and beyond), the world inside drifts further and further away from the one most of us park our shoes in.

Worse, since traditional publishing, traditional media and such have until recently been the only way most folk could learn about anything beyond their immediate experience, those of us who see things differently have been left wondering if we were crazy because there was nothing else remotely matching our view available anywhere. Then the teachers started medicating kids who saw things differently. Now some of the kids do need medication. Most are just… kids. Kids aren’t made to be obedient little drones – you have to train them to do that. When the alleged teaching institutions turn out obedient little drone teachers, they of course will train their students to be obedient little drones. They don’t know how to do anything else, and many of them don’t realize there is anything else. It’s a self-perpetuating conformity enforcement system that destroys all but the strongest of the oddlings and leaves the survivors scarred.

I won’t bullshit here: I waver between bitter misanthrope and hopeful idealist. The latter is my natural mode: the former is what I learned from experience. I try to keep either extreme from dominating. Sometimes I even succeed.

Ultimately the wannabedictators win when we oddlings shut up. There are two principles I’ve picked up over the last few years that I’ve found helpful – although it takes no small amount of courage to follow them.

The truth at any cost, even my life.

Look at everything as if I’ve never seen it before.

As guidelines to live by in a time of tight-sphincter conformity (which always happens in times of perceived hardship) they’re invaluable – and oddly enough begin prepared to pay whatever the cost of speaking up ends up being seems to make that cost much more bearable. Perhaps it’s because the unknown is always more frightening than a known quantity no matter how horrible it is.

The truth at any cost.

Find your truths, and speak them. If nothing else you’ll never be at risk of not being able to look yourself in the mirror.


  1. I’ve never thought of myself as an oddling, but it’s a nice term. I’m a maverick and always have been — questioning why things are the way they are and why I should follow rules that don’t make sense. But I tend to think that conformity is just part of human nature. True, it can be induced and strengthened by teachers (and parents) who have been conditioned by their society and believe that’s the only reality. But let’s face it, it’s rare for anyone to rebel. The ones who have that particular brain kink will eventually wake up and say WTF. Most of humanity wants to be led, wants to be told what to do, and there’s nothing new about that. All we can do is keep saying there’s a different world outside the bubble, and maybe it will speed up the waking up process for the oddlings.

    1. Yes, most people are conformist by nature. Most people will choose to be at the bottom of a group hierarchy rather than go it alone. Those of us who don’t work that way have always been on the outer – but when times are perceived to be bad we oddlings tend to be less tolerated than when times are perceived to be good.

      Showing other oddlings that there is another way and that they’re not alone is always worth doing.

  2. It seems as if the economy and the hint of a glimmer of changing cultural values from the newer generations have combined to send all sorts of institutions into full defensive mode. The example I’m most familiar with is that of academia. Outward conformation leads to all sorts of subterfuges, to being hyper-aware of what one says around whom about what, and how certain sub-groups work to protect the identity of their members (delivering journals to one’s house in a plain wrapper) if the sub-group disagrees with the prevailing mindsets. The institutional walls are thickening, or seem to be, for reasons both understandable (economic uncertainty) and utterly foolish (we must continue working to liberate the oppressed from the hegemony of the patriarchy!). All while the Odds and independents chip away at the walls, or decide not to storm the fortress but to blaze a trail around it.

    1. Oh, yes. My style is to work around the fortress. If one direction blocks, find a different one. Others keep beating at it until something breaks – and knowing us oddlings what breaks often isn’t us. We’re pre-broken as it were.

      1. I think of “broken” as being beaten down, which most people are — like horses, forced to give in and take the bit and saddle. Oddlings may be more susceptible to depression and suicide (as the experts say we are) when they bang their heads against the walls instead of going around them. I prefer strategic withdrawal and finding my own paths. Sometimes, that’s called “burning your bridges.” I’m a professional bridge burner.

        1. Quite. It’s rather easy to be susceptible to depression and suicide when you think at odd angles to the rest of humanity. For us, the internet has been a massive benefit – we can finally find other people like us even if we live in little bitty towns in the middle of nowhere.

          1. You have so many gifts, Kate, that you can’t help but notice when the world makes no sense whatsoever. It’s what my sister calls the curse of the gifted (more or less; she has different terminology): we can’t help but see it. But others don’t. And we either have to pretend we don’t to get along, or we get marked out early as nonconformists.

            Me, I like being a nonconformist. 😉 (Great post, and *hugs* for general principles.)

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