I’m still reflecting on Sarah Condon’s excellent talk at Mockingbird Tyler last week, particularly her discussion of imputation. Once you see imputation in action, it is hard not to notice its presence and absence all over the place.
Take my newsfeed this week. The New York Times ran an article called, “What Happens When Parents are Rude in the Hospital.” A researcher at Tel Aviv University investigated simulated crisis scenarios in a neonatal ICU. Actors, posing as parents of tiny patients, gave a variety of feedback to the medical staff. For example, one rude “mother” in the study emoted loudly enough for the medical staff to hear: “I knew we should have gone to a better hospital where they don’t practice Third World medicine.” The research shows that even “such mild unpleasantness” was enough to negatively impact the performance of doctors and nurses. In fact, their ability to perform in these crisis situations was negatively affected for the rest of the day. The organizers of the study conclude that “rudeness explained more error than the levels of error that have been shown to result from sleep deprivation.”
In other words, the research shows that when we devalue others (even highly successful “others”), we can speak a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy over them. In some small but statistically verifiable way, they become what we complain about.
Gratefully, imputation works in the opposite direction. I could not help but feel this way as I read a 2015 New Yorker esssay by George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, currently #1 on the New York Times list for hardcover fiction (see Ethan and CJ’s excellent review here). In My Writing Education: A Time Line, Saunders narrates his literary adventures in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program back in the 1980s. He pays particular attention to the generosity of two of his instructors: the short story impresario/memoirist Tobias Wolff and the novelist Douglas Unger. Saunders conjured up that pervasive form of graduate school angst – wanting desperately to impress, while obsessing desperately over potentially being a fool. What stands out is the generosity of “Doug” and “Toby” – how they received criticism as well as gave it, and how they managed to critique their students while promoting their dignity and potential. The whole article rewards a read, but allow me to highlight Saunders’ conclusion:
“Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.
We say: I think I might be a writer.
They say: Good for you. Proceed.”
When I read a writer like George Saunders, at the top of his game, it is easy to presume that there has always been an air of inevitability about his eventual success. But how many people simply drop out, because someone eviscerates them with criticism or starves them with neglect? Especially in those pivotal moments, when their talent is underdeveloped, and their psyches are as brittle as eggshells? How deeply do we crave for someone to say to us, or over us, “Good for you. Proceed.” And perhaps, at times, to say it, even when they don’t necessarily fully see it. How much more deeply do we long to hear, not “good for you” but “you are beloved”?