Twice in the last week, I’ve been called a show-off.
This is nothing new for me, but it really ticks me off.
Especially now, with all that’s happening.
Let me tell you why.
Even before I started school, I loved to read. Books were my only friends, for a long time. I was a weird kid.
Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price. These were my heroes.
Although I was arguably a bit young for some of those, no one had ever told me about reading levels. Yet.
So I went to school, and proudly read aloud in my first grade class, without stumbling once.
My teacher called me a show-off, and said I was making the other kids uncomfortable.
I wasn’t allowed to read aloud in that class anymore.
Before high school, I loved math. As Vanilla Ice would say, if there was a problem, yo I’d solve it.
For me, it wasn’t about proficiency, but the thrill of discovery. Back then, like reading a new story, figuring out how numbers worked was like a mystery. I would go from despair to ecstasy in a single moment, every time my brain felt that magical click--wait a minute, I think I’ve got it!
In freshman algebra, there was this girl named Rachel. Everyone called her Britney, though. She was pretty, in that bleach blonde way that was huge in the 90s. Britney--I mean Rachel--her catch phrase was, “I don’t get this.”
“I don’t get this!” she’d cry, as if making an important announcement. Every guy in the room would turn to look, including the teacher. None of them bothered to help her, of course, but they loved to commiserate. "Oh, Rachel. It's not your fault. You're probably not going to ever use this, anyway." Conversely, when I’d answer a question correctly in front of people, or finish my homework early? There it was again. Discomfort. Resistance. Unease. Especially on the part of the boys in the room.
Not long after that, I stopped doing math homework. I’d half-ass my studies, particularly in male taught (and historically, male dominated) subjects like math and science. Eventually, I lost that feeling of challenging myself, of seeking to dominate those thought processes that didn’t come easily to me. Ironically, no one ever corrected me for not trying.
Here’s why I’m especially pissed off about this: I can guarantee I’m not the only girl with a dozen stories like this. How do I know? Because it keeps happening, year after year.
As women, we are told that it’s not okay to be more than good at something, and proud of it. When women excel, we’re told to be humble. Gracious. Don’t publicize the results of all your hard work. Make sure to mention how difficult it was, while you’re at it. Stop “showing off.” Let someone else have a turn. Nobody wants to see you being excellent. It will make them feel uncomfortable.
But why? All my life, I’ve looked up to excellent people--especially women. Especially, especially the ones who made me feel like I was barely trying by comparison. Because, unlike men, our egos aren’t based on a sense that we have to be (or at least appear) to be the best in the room. As women, our self-esteem comes from what we know, deep down, to be true: that we are capable of true greatness. Not just goodness, or better-than-others-ness, but conscious, continuous evolution from the person we used to be.
Sometimes we forget this lesson, or it’s actively un-taught throughout our lives. But women have this unique ability to inspire greatness, merely by striving to be great. Maybe it’s in spite of what they tell us, or maybe it’s because of that. I’m not really sure.
I’d rather be the person who makes someone want to try harder and be better. I would rather NOT be the person someone else looks at to say “well, at least she can’t do it, either.” Call me a “show-off” if you want.
You’re not qualified for that job.
Well, neither is he. And look--he applied, and got it, anyway.
You shouldn’t brag.
What is “bragging,” exactly, if not just saying true things which happen to also be accomplishments?
(Also, have you ever noticed that “bragging” tends to be considered bad for girls, but normal for boys?)
Girls should be ladylike.
Spoiler alert: You can do anything, as a lady, and guess what--it’s ladylike.
Nobody likes a show-off.
Actually, I do.
Thanks to the season, I found myself feeling violently inspired to write about a rarely lauded struggle which I believe all literary folk in general–including the “successful” ones–ultimately face:
I call it The Eternal Shame of Relatively Obscure ROI.(ROR) < Pronounce this like a dinosaur, for optimal fun. (ESoROR works too, if you do it in a Spanish accent and roll the Rs.)
For those of you who have never been forced to take a business or finance class, ROI is a common acronym which stands for Return On Investment. In terms of stocks, bonds, and other fiscal things, the meaning is pretty clear. How much did you make vs. how much you paid? In other things, like real estate, it’s a little more complex. But the basic formula for starting value + time and effort = added value (hopefully) still applies. How much did you buy it for? How much is it objectively worth, if you wanted to sell it later?
Unfortunately for all of us in the fine arts section, this formula RARELY applies to literary or artistic pursuits–at least not in any way that’s clear to the simple observer. And YET, for some reason, sooooo many people expect it to.
Which brings me back to the Eternal Shame part of the equation.
Resurrected at every family holiday, high school or college reunion, Tupperware (or adult toy) party, etc. ad nauseum, this fresh hell is brought on by the above-referenced (inaccurate) assumptions + the soul-crushing obligation to pretend like we care about the intimate lives of people we can’t even bother to text on a bi-yearly basis (unless it’s a mass text that says something like “Happy Turkey Day! Gobble-Gobble Motherf***ers!” of course) + alcohol and the artificial camaraderie that demon liquid somehow produces + lack of inhibitions and let’s face it, no longer really giving a damn about “real life” = Writer Meets World at the speed of a fly hitting the windshield of a 1997 Dodge Caravan.
The World: How many words have you written? Wow, that’s a lot. When will your book be finished?
The Writer: Hard to say, Aunt Gladys. I may harbor some doubt that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but I have a deep and burning testimony of the fact that word count does not directly correlate to completeness and/or coherency of a story. Quite the opposite, in fact, if your eggnog-fueled ramblings can be used as precedent. Less is more, Gladdie. Have another glass of lightly-dairied rum, why don’t you?
The World: How many books have you written?
The Writer: Are we talking mentally, or like, physically typed? Mentally, I average about ten new stories a day. From short stories to scenes to anecdotes, sometimes they fit in the greater scheme of the Project of Note…but more often, not. Oh, you didn’t mean mentally? Fine, ye puny imagined thing. I have written exactly three attempted books since last August, when the moon waxed crescent. (I remember, because that was when I most recently shaved my legs.) The first was more of a larval effort, but I have high hopes that it will pupate into something glorious during the revision phase. The second was a half-hearted ripoff of Twilight fused with Doctor Who fan fiction. I can basically guarantee that if I can revise that in time and find an agent to represent it, I will be a ridiculous bestseller and household name by next Christmas. New Years. Fourth of July, tops. Did that properly answer your question, Tiffany? No, I don’t want to hear about your kids, or your husband’s car dealership. Now for the LOVE OF GOD Tiffany, would you PLEASE JUST PUSH DEBIT OR CREDIT?
The World: How many have you sold?
The Writer: Uhhhhhh…. (Funny story: most authors don't get to see their actual/exact sales numbers but once or twice per year, if they're lucky.)
The World/The Internet/Life: Aren’t you getting any better? Obviously, the harder you work at something, the more money you should be making at it. Right?
The Writer: *drinks, cries, writes harder, repeats*
Fellow Writers: How hard do you write? I bet that I write harder than you. How high is your word count? How hard do you work? How hard do you market your stuff? How successful are you? Why doesn’t your effort or result ever seem to match what all these “successful” people are doing? Why doesn’t your success make sense to anyone, including you?
BECAUSE MATH IS STUPID, AND NOT A VERY GOOD METHOD FOR JUDGING YOUR LIFE. (There. I said it!)
Talent. Responsibilities. Resources. Time. Personal goals. Definition of success. All of these things are relative, and nebulous, and ultimately, fleeting. There is no one pathway to perfectly write the perfect book, just like there is no perfect pathway to perfectly sell that perfect perfect perfect perfect *slams head against desk, several times* Whoo! Sorry about that. Where was I?
Oh, yes. I think Chuck Wendig said it best when he said “The thing that defines a writer is that the writer writes.” We are judged by what labels we decide to let define us. So. In my opinion, here’s how this conversation should always go:
The World: How’s that whole “writing thing” going for you?
The Writer: Awesome. I spend all my free time doing what I love most in the world. Sometimes, I write for hours at a time. My personal best moment this week was when I realized–after only six hours straight of wallowing in self-pity and despair–that I knew EXACTLY how to fix the plot hole I discovered (and subsequently fell into) the day before. Such triumph has never been experienced on this mortal coil, Gladys. Your “ultra absorbent and somewhat discreet” Depends could not possibly hold the amount of pride I felt in that moment.
The World: How many books have you written?
The Writer: Many book units, Tiffany. It’s all very complicated and writerly. I’m not sure you’d understand. By the way, are you aware that your immaculately-dressed toddler is dangling from the bottom of your shopping cart and licking the floor?
The World: How many books have you sold?
The Writer: Not as many as the countless hours of my life I freely traded away, for dubious returns, working at that soul-sucking desk job for a corporate monolith whose principles I neither believed in nor cared about. Speaking of which, I heard you made middle-manager at X Corp. Congrats on that, Doug. (Zing!)
_________________________________________What’s the point?
The “bottom line” isn’t money or success, it’s this: being better than everyone else. (Just kidding!) You work hard because you want to do something you love the best you (personally) can. You want to learn, and grow, and become better than you were yesterday. That’s kind of…like the point of life. Writing should be the same way.
You write harder, better, more, because it teaches you things about yourself and helps you understand the world in a new way.
Not because you want to (finally) be able to tell the world you wrote a book, or publish/sell that book, or get rich and famous and finally tell Cousin Courtney and her supposedly perfect life to SUCK ON MY GREATNESS, CHOKE ON IT, AND WALLOW FOREVERMORE IN YOUR BLEACHED CROSSFIT PURGATORY AHAHAHAHAHA…*ahem* again, sorry…like I said, that’s NOT a good enough reason to devote your free time, your life, your eternal soul (or temporary incarnation, as the case may be) to doing something as crazy as putting funny little squiggles on a page.
I’m just saying.
Writer. Agent. Lover of wine and smelly cheeses. Solver of problems. Drinker of coffee. Champion of real life HEAs.