In which I contemplate the stigmatized Freudian construct as title-villain (a la It or Cujo) versus title-hero (a la Emma)?
All week I’ve been thinking about my capital-E Ego and planning to write a blog post about it.
You see, this author program I’m working with is composed largely of new, maybe even first-time writers. It’s kind of an amazing thing – a thing that I respect, admire, and fully support: breaking down the barriers that keep people from telling their stories and actualizing their books. That said, novice I am not. Though I haven’t written much fiction, and I’ve yet to publish a full-length collection of poems, I’ve done enough writing, publishing, and teaching (of writing) to feel indubitably confident of my skills. (Confident enough to use “indubitably.”) Which is to say: I know I’m a strong writer. I’m a natural writer. It’s a thing I just know how to do.
And yet, I still get imposter syndrome. Especially when it comes to writing this novel. (I’ve definitely mentioned this a few times, but I never really thought writing a novel would be part of my journey.) So, when our basic, creative lectures cover something that I’ve already done – like outlining or developing lengthy character sketches full of seemingly irrelevant details – I find myself smiling inwardly and maybe high-fiving myself for having such solid instincts.
I, then, immediately warn myself about keeping my Ego in check.
And that’s what I intended to write about in this blog post: My need, as a writer of some skill and accomplishment, to stay humble and open, to remember that I still have a lot to learn, and to not let my over-inflated sense of worth get in the way of whatever it will get in the way of.
Because, clearly, my Ego will get in the way. Right? At least, that’s what I’ve been socialized to believe and be afraid of.
Here is where the post takes a sharp left turn from what I expected to write. Because maybe we, especially women, need to stop worrying so much about checking our Egos. Maybe checking our Egos can actually be dangerous at times.
The other day I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for a while. We don’t work in the same department, but we frequently run into each other on campus. When I hadn’t seen her for several weeks, I assumed our schedules no longer lined up, she’d found another job, or she’d been laid off. As it turns out, my acquaintance, K, had been on medical leave for nearly three months after having emergency knee replacement.
Yesterday when I saw her, she was doing well, recovering, and as perky as ever, but a few months ago, her knee just seized up. She couldn’t move. She got help, went to the hospital, and met a specialist who told her that her knee had four distinct abnormalities or problem areas. Having gone untreated for too long, the specialist explained, K basically experienced a “heart attack of the knee.” After imaging and testing, the surgeon told her those problems had been there for an indeterminate amount of time–which is to say, they didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Why does that matter? Well, because K had been seeing an orthopedist for years before this happened, complaining about knee pain, and being told: “You’re getting older. You have arthritis. You just have to learn to live with your limitations.” Meanwhile, K, a grown woman who had lived in her own body her entire life (as one does), knew that something wasn’t right. “But doctor, the pain in this knee is different than the other.”
“Nope. It isn’t. It’s just arthritis. You’ll be fine.”
Until one day, she wasn’t. And on her way to the mailbox, the blood flow to her knee stopped and K was paralyzed.
Had that orthopedist listened to her and done more than a basic x-ray, he would have seen these abnormalities in her knee. But he didn’t. And my friend, an older woman, raised in a religious community that prizes obedience (as most do), trusted the doctor more than herself. Like many women in such situations, she probably didn’t want to seem pushy or rude. She probably didn’t want to challenge the doctor’s knowledge and expertise. What if she was wrong? What if he did a test and nothing was there? She might look arrogant and foolish. And really, who was she to challenge a doctor?
Most women reading this know K’s experience is not unusual. When women have pain, we are routinely dismissed or belittled. I’ve been through it many times and I know lots of other women who have as well. I’ve been talked into treatments I didn’t want because doctors didn’t believe or care about my experiences or concerns. I’ve been laughed at for questioning “normal” pain. I’ve gotten this treatment from both men and women in healthcare. Sometimes I’ll try to preempt the invalidating BS by reminding my healthcare provider that I’ve pushed two large-headed humans out of my body, one without any drugs, but that often elicits a sort of “hysterical woman” side-eye. So, usually I just nod through any condescension and find my way to the next provider who might actually listen. Not surprisingly, I’ve had the best success with providers who focus specifically on women’s bodies, be they family practitioners, sports medicine docs, or even mental health professionals.
But, how did I arrive at pain and healthcare when I started with my writerly Ego? Well… because Ego is a bad word for Confidence, and Confidence develops when you trust yourself, and some of us – again, women especially – have been socialized to not trust ourselves at even the most basic levels, like, you know, understanding our own bodies. If you’re not allowed to be confident about your own feelings or experiences that are uniquely yours, how can you possibly feel confident in your skills? How can you not feel the need to have everything validated by some external source? How can you not begin to question yourself when others question you?
But that’s not the same as Ego, you might say.
Sure, you could be right, but some of us have been socialized out of seeing that difference. We’ve been told that it’s all the same and made to feel like simply trusting ourselves – advocating for our own experiences, knowledge, or needs – is akin to having a “big ego.” And we don’t want that. So, we demure from taking what we need. We avoid talking about ourselves. We apologize for being good at things and (god forbid!) knowing it.
For me, this meant years of being afraid to call myself a writer, especially a poet; I felt like someone else needed to call me that for it to be real. Instead, I would say, “I write poems.” I deferred to that imposter syndrome, needing someone else to decide if I was “good enough” to be a poet. At some point they did: I got published. I got awards. I got titles. Yet, none of those things made me a poet. In fact, I still feel like a fraud most of the time; there’s still some other measure I haven’t yet met that keeps me from being a “real” poet.
And now I’ve taken on a novel – a thing I know so little about. Or do I? I mean, I’ve been reading novels for more than 30 years. I went to college and grad school for English and creative writing. I’ve been teaching writing for more than 10 years, including narrative structures. No, I’m not a master by any stretch, and I won’t claim to be. But I’m also not a beginner.
Just typing that line fills me with the urge to humble myself: That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being a beginner. (I didn’t say there was, but of course, I worry that’s how it’s perceived). Of course there are always things I can learn from even basic lessons. (That may be, but that’s not really the point.)
The point is when I think about keeping my Ego in check, what I’m really thinking is: Be prepared to be told you aren’t good. Be prepared to have your skills and your instincts questioned. Be prepared to compromise yourself for some “authority” who doesn’t know you or believe in you. Be ready to acquiesce.
I recently told my Creative Writing students that there are (at least) two voices inside every writer: the Inner Rockstar and the Inner Critic. The Rockstar brings us to the page: she wants to be seen, she believes she’s unique and fascinating and special. The Critic is the asshole, telling us our ideas aren’t original, our words aren’t fresh, our experience isn’t earned, and then shapes all of that into something good. I told them both are equally important and valuable.
But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I have really believed that. Instead, I used to think the Rockstar was deluded, but necessary: she gives the Critic, the real master in my mind, material to work with. The Rockstar was my capital-E Ego, and if she had her way everything I wrote would be drivel. Keep her in check. But what if she’s the real force to be reckoned with? What if it’s the Critic who needs to be checked? What if instead of avoiding Ego, I guarded against fear and inhibition? What if I evicted the asshole from my brain and gave that Rockstar more space – for bigger smiles, jumping high-fives, and maybe an elaborate end-zone celebration every once in a while?
I mean, experience tells me there are enough other forces waiting to squash my confidence, make me question myself, and brandish Ego like a dirty word. Maybe it’s about time I stopped being one of them.