The other day, my friend J.M. Frey (Triptych, The Dark Side Of The Glass) posted a quote to her Tumblr:
Girls are trained to say, ‘I wrote this, but it’s probably really stupid.’ Well, no, you wouldn’t write a novel if you thought it was really stupid. Men are much more comfortable going, ‘I wrote this book because I have a unique perspective that the world needs to hear.’ Girls are taught from the age of seven that if you get a compliment, you don’t go, ‘Thank you’, you go, ‘No, you’re insane.’
It came from a (very long) interview with Girls creator Lena Dunham did with the Guardian. This post is not about the show or Dunham, but the phenomenon of women writers minimizing or diminishing their work. I had a personal experience with this (below) which made me sensitive to it. And while not unique to women, now that I am senstive to it I find female writers, more than male, are more likely to diminish, degrade or reduce their work.
It needs to stop. You are not being modest or humble, but lying to yourself and others.
Diminishing your accomplishments is not modesty, it’s destructive
I believe humility and modesty are virtues. (NOTE: I am not talking about women dressing modestly, being demure, deferring to men or any of that sexist bullshit. I am talking about everyone.) Without them, it can be very easy to lose perspective, even with moderate success, and feel you can play by different rules—dominate a panel, demand a book signing slot, not arrive on time, etc. In the creative field, rarely is such behaviour tolerated. Even major celebrities can incur tremendous backlash. Consider John Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus” comment in 1966.
Modesty keeps one grounded and connected with fans, who are the reason we are successful. It also reminds us that there is always room for improvement. It brings things from an exaggeration down to a reasonable level. A statement of “Oh my God, this is the best book ever written!” met by “Thanks, I’m really proud of it and glad you enjoyed it” allows the author to remain humble while still thanking and acknowledging the fan.
What I hear some women authors saying isn’t humility. Saying a story is “silly” or probably won’t win the contest it’s been submitted to is not being modest or reasonable, but unreasonable since it is a reduction into the negative.
Or worse, having someone tell you that your story is amazing and you reply “Well, it’s not really that good” is invalidating the other person’s opinion. They gave you a huge compliment and then you told them they were wrong. The other person won’t think you’re humble, but a jerk.
Why I’ll never be mistaken for a former jock
I’ve never been a 7 year old girl, so can’t comment on Dunham’s statement on the training they receive about receiving compliments, but men still tend to be judged by their individualism while women are judged by their collectivism. Consider the dissection of Marissa Mayer’s decisions as president of Yahoo!; instead of being the boss (positive masculine trait), she’s bossy (negative feminine trait). Or, watch the video below by Pantene targeted to the Philippines .
Could it be that women don’t want to be seen as “the bitch” who brags about her work? Does this comes from geek psychology?
While the bullying that most of us geeks—both men and women—endured involved name calling and threats, male bullying tends to carry the threat of physical violence while female bullying is more social, such as spreading false rumours and excluding from the group, which are often started by a “queen bee” alpha female.
For men, we generally outgrow the physical threat of bullying, but for women the threat of social exclusion persists into adulthood. And just as we male geeks can’t stand the 40-something ex-jock who’s got the same mentality as our grammar school bully, female geeks can’t stand the “queen bee”s in their social circles, office or gym.
Where the difference happens is that while no one will confuse me for an Alpha Male Former Jock, a female geek might worry she is voicing too many pointed opinions or thinks others feel she is elevating herself above the group, which might lead to her being labelled “a bitch.” For either gender, to be equated with one’s former tormentors in a group that prizes its sense of community is horrific. So perhaps when facing a huge compliment, a woman fears being seen as the “queen bee” she hated in high school and tries to counter the compliment.
Don’t go dark; just say “Thank you”
Both male and female authors fall into this pattern of mistaking self-degradation for modesty. Sometimes it comes from honestly not knowing how to take a compliment. Sometimes it comes from someplace much darker.
I wasn’t raised with the best social graces, so when I started having some success and receiving compliments, I didn’t know how to reply since I rarely had to deal with them before. Rather than being flattered, I was embarrassed by the attention. And I immediately replied with everything negative about what was being praised.
Part of this came from my artistic desire for perfection, but some of it came from self-doubt and self-loathing. Like a lot of creative types, I internalized a lot of negatives things said about me. So when someone told me they loved my story, a voice in my head coming from 30 years back said: “Don’t they know I’m stupid, worthless and going to fail?”
It took a lot of work, but I learned to just reply “Thank you” to a compliment. There is nothing immodest about it. Learning from others, when someone said something extravagant I’d reply with a reasonable statement:
- “Glad you liked it.”
- “I’m proud of the story.”
- “I always wanted to explore a world like that.”
- “I’m writing something similar right now.”
At the risk of telling you what to do: don’t ever diminish your work, your effort or your accomplishments. If you hear the voice in your head wanting to run you down, don’t let it. It’s not you. Artists tend to be overly sensitive and that voice is all the negative crap said about you, which you have defied. Just say “Thank you” or use one of the lines above. The people who didn’t understand your art—or, more likely, were jealous of it—do not matter. Stop the destructive cycle going on in your head. Please.
If you hear someone doing this, call them on it. Be respectful, but break that cycle. Point out the facts, praise them and see if you can get them to see where that bullshit attitude of “Oh, I’m not really that good” came from.
Because here it is folks: If you’ve finished a story, that’s not just good enough, it’s amazing. It is creating something from nothing. You might say there are plenty of other writers, which is true, but none of them are you and none of them have written your story. And there are plenty of others out there who wish they could do what you have done.
Before there were cities, specialized labour, organized religion or even the written language, there were storytellers. They made sense of the world. We satisfy the humans need for the make-believe.
Any time you begin to think you are silly, not good enough or going to end up failing, remember that you are part of this ancient tradition that stretches back millennia. You matter.
Coda: A personal story
Several years ago at a convention, I was on a panel and a woman in the audience asked a question. I don’t recall the panel topic or the question, but clearly recall her introduction. “I write these… silly little stories and…” I replied to her question, but then zeroed in on her use of the word “silly.” From her body language and tone of voice, I could tell it came from a place of insecurity.
Trying not to be paternalistic, but speaking as panelist to attendee, I asked her if she had finished and submitted her stories. She told me she had finished them, but didn’t think they were good enough to submit. We also spoke after the panel so I can’t recall what I said during the panel and what we discussed after, but I told her she was in a special minority since most “writers” make excuses rather than finish their work. Any artistic effort completed by the artist is never silly. She had created something out of nothing and she didn’t know if there was someone in the world who would be a better person having read her story. Why hold back her story from that person who needs it? And she should let publishers and editors decide if her work was worth publishing. She teared up as we spoke and I fell like an ass for it, but some time later I saw her and asked how she was. She indicated she was still writing, taking it seriously, and submitting her work.