This is a piece about the insecure souls most writers possess. I said “most” but I mean me. And by writers, I mean you.
When I publish a piece readers respond to? I get an inch and a half taller and shinier hair. I become present, compassionate. But if I publish a story to silence? I’m personally worthless. Changing careers.
The brain, bless its heart, has a proven negative bias. Let me tell you a story.
If I tell you something delightful about a neighbor you haven’t met and one negative thing, you’ll believe the negative thing. If you hear 9 compliments about yourself and one complaint, you’ll stew on and believe the complaint. You will pick an angry face out of a happy crowd, faster than you’ll pick a happy face out of an angry crowd.
So knowing this, I’m careful when I discuss a writer’s work but I’ve found they (and by “they” I mean “we”) are all the same.
I’ll say, “Bob, your novel is complex, intriguing. I love the voice and plot! Add just a bit more tension to the opening and we’ll start looking for an agent.” As Bob walks away, I’ll hear him murmur into his phone, “Might as well trash it. No tension.”
What is that selective negativity?
When I was a girl, the single most horrifying breach of social protocol was to be labelled conceited. This was a very girl-specific felony. Boys were never accused of such a crime.
A classmate could have flirted with your boyfriend, cheated on the math test but wait! Was she conceited?
Full of herself? Steer clear.
That need for humility was primarily fueled by fear. At ground level, no one can take me down a peg, knock me from a high horse. And anyone who has ever experienced that kind of shame will do virtually anything to avoid it.
We were on a 7th grade class trip to NYC—on a coach-type bus—not the big yellow boxes with worn-out shock absorbers we rode to school, but a silver behemoth with huge windows and hissing airbrakes.
I was so happy, so excited to be on this adventure with my classmates. We were chatting away, laughing, full of good cheer. I may have even felt pretty that day with a plaid skirt, red sweater, a highly organized purse. I know I was high on the electric intimacy of middle school friendship and telling a funny story when a chaperone in the front of the bus lost it.
She had probably been gritting her teeth for 100 miles, teetering on the edge of tolerance enduring the cacophony of this rambunctious, joyous bunch of 13-year-olds, when somewhere just over the New Jersey state line, she twisted about in her seat and roared, “Shut UP! SHUT THE HELL UP!” And then, to demonstrate that her wrath was justified, she looked over the seats, zeroed in on me, and proclaimed, “You! I can hear your big mouth all the way up here.”
I was horrified. It wasn’t just that she’d singled me out—I was only 4 rows from the front and one of the few kids making eye contact with her—it was the word “hell.” It was the phrase, “big mouth.” Her outburst was aggressively personal, and worse, just slightly base. I was as shocked by the lack of manners as by the accusation.
I had never seen one of my parents, or any adult, be rude in public. It just wasn’t done. And in that instant, I intuited a class distinction. Although it’s a judgment I would not make now, in a moment of genuine conceit, I felt socially superior to the woman shaming me and for that I am sorry.
So, I’m wondering whether you, and by you, I mean you, have any of these pocket-shames tucked away.
If you don’t empty your pockets, you’ll carry this energy your whole life. It will fuel your response to things completely unrelated. “Might as well trash it. Why’d a big mouth like me think he could write a novel?”
The surefire remedy to pain is story. So, I tell myself one. That chaperone was exhausted. She had taken a day off work without pay because not enough of the well-off, stay-at-home mothers had volunteered. By New Jersey she had a splitting headache fueled by seething resentment.
And once, though she doesn’t remember this, she was a beautiful little girl feeling exuberantly happy—high on a moment of loving camaraderie with her friends—and someone had made it a point to bring her down to size.
All she knows now is that she boarded that big silver bus with the best of intentions and in the silence of the ruined ride, she pokes her glasses back up on her face feeling justified and confused. Deeply self-conscious and not quite done.
I see her not from the eyes of an embarrassed adolescent but through the eyes of a mother who has yelled at kids, too. Totally, indelibly, regrettably lost it. And across time, I want to tell her it’s okay, I want to tender memory with mercy. She was doing the best she could. As am I. As are you.
As I recount that story, I feel taller with shinier hair. Present and compassionate.
I feel full of myself.
And finally, finally, finally, that’s a good thing to be.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.