“I should not have described my work that way. No more than you should say you dabble in geology. Why is it that we women so often downplay our accomplishments?”
“I don’t know. Men are always boasting of theirs.”
“Too true. Let’s boast to each other, then.”
- A Night to Surrender, by Tessa Dare
A while back I was devouring the Spindle Cover series by Tessa Dare (which is on sale in ebook right now, the titles are $2.99 and they are the best books ever. Go get them. Be amazed.) and I came across this passage. I took a picture of it and tweeted it at the time, because it’s something I’ve often thought.
That in order to avoid appearing prideful or egotistical, women must downplay their accomplishments and their expertise on a given subject. I also noticed that last year, when workshops were given at conferences regarding the ‘future of publishing’ they were often (possibly always) given by men. Make of that what you will.
Now, this issue is not entirely one of gender, but even within the writing community OFTEN it’s women I see downplaying their expertise and skill, while you rarely see that from men. (often, rarely, not never and always. )
This post isn’t only for women, though, but for anyone who struggles with the: how am I supposed to feel about what I write? thing.
It’s hard. Because the absolute truth is, we have to write something and submit it to an agent, and editor, whatever, and they’ll tell us what’s wrong with it. Even if you bypass that stage and just bring it out to readers, they’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. And that will happen even after you get an agent/editor stamp of approval too. There will be criticism of what you do.
That makes loving your work unreservedly a challenge, especially if you want to improve it.
On the flip side, if you hate everything you do, and doubt every word you write, and if you’re convinced that what you write is magic and in no part a learnable skill you can grow in and improve in, then how are you supposed to work without feeling constant, blinding terror?
To be perfectly honest, I yo-yo violently between the two half of the time. I’m either writing and thinking I AM SO GOOD. OMG FREAKING GENIUS HERE!! GOLDEN FINGERTIPS! or I’m hunched over my keyboard like…oh this is all so bad. it’s so bad. it’s so bad. it’s bad.
Middle grounds can be tough to come by in this business.
But here’s what I KNOW intellectually:
1. You have to like your work, and be willing to tear it apart if that’s what it takes to make it better.
2. You do learn. You do improve. It’s not magic. It’s a craft. That means just like someone learning to knit, you will get better. It doesn’t mean that after years of knitting lovely shawls you aren’t capable of producing vomit inducing Christmas sweater, but, your skills will still have improved, even if you make an error.
3. It’s okay to be proud of your work. It’s okay to say you’re good at what you do. If my doctor went all around saying “I don’t know how this surgery is going to go. I’m just not that good.” I would FIRE HIM. I expect my doctor to know what she’s doing. And that quiet confidence in her ability is not ego, it’s her due after medical school and years of experience. So often we writers deny ourselves that.
4. It’s okay to get criticism and not say anything about it. Really. People will write lots of stuff about your books, and a lot of it won’t be nice. But that’s okay. I recently had one book get a bad comment regarding the ‘cheesy epilogue’ and then on a different book someone didn’t like that I had no baby epilogue. Essentially, everyone’s taste is different. I don’t like mustard. Put mustard on my burger, I’m not going to be able to gag it down. I don’t like it, I’m not wrong, but it doesn’t mean everyone would call it a bad burger. The cook wouldn’t need to take my criticism to heart in that instance.
5. This leads me to: you can’t please everyone. Not in the content of your story or in your professional and personal conduct. You just can’t. So be you, write the best book you can, don’t worry about what other people might think or say.
Confidence, enjoyment of your work, isn’t about ego, it’s about sustainability. It’s about not feeling obligated to put yourself down.
Because I think if you can sit down at the keyboard and say to yourself: I have this. I do. I’m learning, I’m growing, I’ve done it before and I liked my books, and I’ll do it again, then it will help make things feel not as daunting. Not as tiring. When you feel like you have control, at least over your part, it helps.
And it’s exhausting to not allow yourself any sort of pride or enjoyment or victory, even in your own head.
I have met some amazing and talented women in these past few years, and they deserve to feel that they are amazing, and talented. They, and we, and all of us, should never feel obligated to put ourselves down for the comfort of others.
In writing as in life.
Or as my friend Jackie Ashenden said to her daughter yesterday when they were discussing a school project: You have to own your awesome. Don’t put yourself down.