I adore this week’s essay and I think it’ll resonate with many writers who struggle with the self-promotional aspect of writing. How do we get our words read? How can we achieve success, without sharing our work with as many people as we can? How can we do this without seeming arrogant? It’s been said, by some, that being a successful writer requires a big ego. To many of us, that may be distasteful. Is it a female phenomenon? Male writers don’t seem to struggle with ego. This author decided to own her ego and I can hear her superwoman roar. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. – Allie
Confessions of Uncharitable Thoughts Toward Others
When a few of my grad-school writer-teachers gathered to give advice to us aspiring writers, I dutifully wrote down what they said, one statement in particular standing out: “Writers who succeed have: 1) tremendous egos, and 2) are as stubborn as hell.”
I knew number two posed no problem for me. A dog with a bone, my mother always said. Determined, a good streak of OCD, focused, stubborn—yes, my quirks actually good for something besides annoying my husband and three sons. But what about number one? Ego? This I perceived as the problematic area.
Born in 1974, I am the expected womanly outcome of the heavily patriarchal, fundamentalist-Christian, blue-collar backwoods where I was raised. I was trained from a young age to be self-effacing, obedient, servile. Nice. Women like this—like me—we don’t do ego.
At a very young age, I learned how to best serve my father. After work, I took off his boots and sweaty socks and served him platters of food. At eleven I was responsible for him when my mother was gone—making dinner and cleaning up, making sure he was satisfied. Then, married at eighteen, I cooked three meals a day, feeding my husband and later, three sons.
We clean—a lot.
We don’t flinch at nasty things—we scour. We dig in and scrub and wipe and vacuum and sweep and wash. With a houseful of four six-foot-plus-tall men/boys, I do loads and loads and loads of laundry. Mountains of laundry. Towels, sheets, jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts. Sock mounds big enough to put a quaver in the heart of the bravest laundress.
We manage the household.
We stretch monies, grocery shop, pay the bills, cook, clean, and take care of the kids. I was married raising three young children while going to school and managing significant household concerns and finances before most of my current college students have learned how to heat up Ramen or effectively use an alarm clock.
But most importantly, we are nice.
We are kind and considerate. We put our needs second. We don’t complain—we defer and hold our tongue, carving out what space we need for ourselves without inconveniencing anyone, without interrupting dinner or laundry or homework help. We accomplish our work without removing ourselves. We are always available and supportive for the ones we love.
These things fit the societal expectations of my upbringing, even fit my personality well enough, but they don’t fit the extremely competitive world of academia and writing well at all. They don’t fit ego.
It’s puzzled me for years, this seeming conundrum. How can I succeed if I don’t have the ego others have? How am I supposed to compete with men who have ego oozing out of their pores, who convince themselves and everyone else of their own immense intellects and writerly skills?
There are good reasons for my concern. Besides my societal anti-ego training, I forget names of authors and titles and don’t really pay attention to who’s-who. I can never remember things in time to bring forth pointed conversational references that make me sound smart. I misspell. I mispronounce. I bumble and blush. My memory fails me over and over again. I’m often shy and self-doubting. When it comes down to it, I’m not very “academic,” although I always loved school, did very well in classes, and now love teaching. I can clearly see the career advantages others—especially ambitious men—have over me.
I work hard at what I do, especially writing, but unlike Emily Dickinson who kept herself tucked away, I want to be published, want to be “successful”—publicly. This I understand is an act of ego—the desire to be recognized, to be heard. But is it really tremendous ego? It doesn’t seem so to me. I don’t crave the spotlight, don’t want to be the center of attention. I’m quiet in social situations and don’t self-promote well. In fact, I’m exactly what feminists say is a woman formed by a male-dominant society; I do everything they say a woman like me does.
But one night as I whip up a tripled-recipe pineapple up-side-down cake, I tick off the things I’ve accomplished that day in my head, a sort of mental tally-sheet I often do: Today I cleaned house, changed sheets, did seven loads of laundry, took a six-mile hike, graded twelve essays and twenty-four short assignments, went food shopping, revised chapter one of novel two, tweaked on one of the four essays I’m working on, made a nice dinner, made this pineapple up-side-down cake, had good times with my children and husband, chatted with friends and my sister. Not a bad day, I think with pride. And there it is, staring me right in the face, hiding in plain sight all these many years—there is my tremendous ego!
When I finally recognize it, I realize it’s been there forever. Perhaps because it wasn’t a writerly ego, or an academic or career ego, I didn’t see it for what it actually is: a superwoman ego. An I-can-do-everything-and-do-it-well ego. And it’s not just proud. It’s angry. It’s arrogant and profane. It looks out at the world and says, That’s right motherfuckers, I’m fucking superwoman and don’t you fucking forget it! The nice-girl me turns hard and blasphemous: You want to know how far I surpass you? she asks. You want to know how far superior I am? She scorns your soft-sidedness, your inferiority. You want to complain? she demands, but you dare not because if you did she would wither you with stories of long-suffering hard-working far-surpassing accomplishments that you can never compete with, not unless you too are a woman like her—someone who at forty years old has been-there-done-that more than anyone but most people’s grandparents: married twenty-two years, bought three houses and countless vehicles, moved five times, earned two degrees while raising three sons, taught college full time and made over a thousand students care and like her classes, cooked and cleaned and done laundry for three decades (do you know how much that equates?), taken care of complicated finances, kept a nice house, painted and decorated inside and out, landscaped and gardened, stayed in shape, cut everyone’s hair, not nagged or bitched, carried the emotional well-being of the family in her hand, written and published essays and poems and stories and novels, been in a book club and a writer’s group, taken care of business like no one else and been a really fucking good daughter and sister and friend and mother and wife and teacher and made the best fucking pies of anyone, because—fuck this, fuck it all—she is motherfucking superwoman.
How’s that for ego?
The nice-girl me cringes in red-faced embarrassment and apology over the other’s egotistical tirade, her cursing fist-lifting power. But secretly even she—even the nice-girl me—cheers the other one on.
In junior-high, the girls used to say about me: She just thinks she’s better than everyone else. I could never understand why. As a child, I was paralyzed by insecurity, afraid of doing everything wrong. In disgust at my hand-wringing ineptitude over something as simple as making toast, my older sister once declared that I would need someone to do everything for me when I grew up. But I see now that the junior-high girls were the ones who got it right after all. In balancing all that I do, I do think I’m better than everyone else. My ego is enormous. She looks around the world in glaring challenge and says: Go ahead. Try to top that, quite certain you can’t. My superwoman me. My stubborn, tremendous-ego me. I have finally found her.
Annie Lampman is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Washington State University Honors College and fiction editor of Blood Orange Review. She has a MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, three sons, and a bevy of pets in Moscow, Idaho. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Orion Magazine, High Desert Journal, and Poetry & Place along with many other journals. She has been awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, first place in the Everybody-Writes contest, an Idaho Commission on the Arts writing grant, and a national wilderness artist’s residency through the Bureau of Land Management. Her first novel is under consideration in New York.
**Our assistant editor, Allie, is now accepting submissions for our March column: the theme is rebirth. For more details and submission guidelines, read this.