“Negative People:” A Writer’s Perspective

I’m a member of a Linked-In group for “professional women.” Mostly, I hate the discussion groups, but I remain a member, probably because I kind of love to hate it. It’s like when you have a twisted ankle and you keep testing it again and again. I guess there’s something reassuring about the pain.

What happens in this group is people often post articles or start discussions about things that either demean themselves, and all of us, as women, or else raise us on a pedestal in order to demean others. I’ll give you an example. One discussion forum poses the question (I’m paraphrasing), “Depression affects millions of people in the workplace, and since women suffer from this the most, what do you do to combat this problem?”

This, of course, is followed by a lot of chirpy suggestions involving familial love, hot cups of tea, and meditation. Seldom do any commenters address the absurd premise that women get more depressed than men. Questions like these don’t even read like they’re written by women, and I feel like I’m part of some social experiment in hegemony, to see if I will believe my own group of people is inferior simply because it’s assumed so.

The latest article that really got my goat (and I’m bringing this around to memoirs and writing and ghostwriting here in a minute, I promise) was one offering helpful suggestions for how to shut down a colleague who is “constantly negative.” The article suggests that you ask the person to look on the bright side, find some good outcome of the situation, or deflect his negativity with a compliment. Boy, that steamed me up.

The assumption here is that one person has the right to “shut down” someone else because she doesn’t like his speech or behavior. The real problem in a situation like this is that the writer (or reader) of this article doesn’t like the way the other person is talking. Instead of simply saying, “you are bumming me out!” which is the truth of the matter, the article writer has come up with ten different ways to try to change the other person’s outlook. Clearly, the writer is so sure that her outlook is correct, that she feels comfortable condescending to others in this way.

I mention this because this fight against “negative people” comes into play a lot in my work of ghostwriting memoirs. Sometimes clients want to portray others (ex-wives, certain family members, etc.) as evil characters. Now, I’m all for exposing reality, but when my clients do this, it’s because they aren’t thinking like writers.

Readers want to see characters that are flawed, but also sympathetic. Real life isn’t a fairy tale or an opera or a melodrama, where you have “good guys” and “bad guys.” It’s about the complexity of people and what drives them to do the things that they do. If I take the attitude of the woman who posted the article about “shutting down negative people,” I’m making one character wrong and the other right.

The problem is, that’s just not interesting to read. People want to see the full depth of the characters in a book. Like the author of that article, they don’t always view people fairly in life, but, in a book, they need me, the author (or ghostwriter as the case may be) to do that for them. A writer must not only be fair to the book’s heroic characters, but also, and more importantly, to the so-called villains. That’s one of the important things that keeps a book from feeling flat or one-dimensional.

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