Monday, December 30, 2013

On Success

I’ve been doing this a long time, you know. This writing thing. Many of the people I am closest to now met me in college, where I double majored in philosophy and religion, or graduate school round one, where I studied theology. I call myself a theologian, and slowly, with practice, I am starting to believe what I say about myself. “Writer,” though -- that is a title I took on at age twelve, a title I have believed for a long time. Maybe not all seventeen years that I have described myself that way, but most of them.

My high school teachers said I had “potential” as a writer. The dreaded “p” word, and all of its accompanying baggage of pressure to succeed. At eighteen my skin was not thick enough. I gave up too easily. I applied for a writing scholarship, and when I did not get it, I decided to major in literature instead. I submitted to the college literary journal, and when I was rejected several times I stopped submitting. It was easier to believe the rejection than the successes. Easier to focus on the judges who had said “no” than the ones who said “yes,” when they awarded me the first year writing prize. After all, I won that prize for writing the best essay in an English 113 class -- the class many of my smart friends got out of because they had taken AP courses in high school. I attributed the win to a big fish, small pond scenario. It did not even occur to me to suggest that my parents drive the hour from Kalamazoo to Holland for the honors convocation where I would receive the award.

I knew I was a writer, though. I just didn’t expect I would ever be successful at it. I didn’t think anyone actually cared about what I had to say. I didn’t believe that I had anything to say worth paying attention to, honestly. I wrote because it was something I needed to do. I wrote for me, and I didn’t show my work to anyone.

The philosophy department, where I wound up at my English advisor’s recommendation, was the place I learned that I had something to say -- and that it was worth saying. Most of the things I had to say, it turned out, were more philosophical than I realized. Many of the things I wanted to say were about God, too. And so I dove into studying religion as well. These became the things I wrote about most, besides my own life and how I got from one day to the next -- topics which were also related to philosophy and religion, perhaps unsurprisingly.

And so, my decision two years ago to pursue an MFA is not and never has been a career change. It’s a re-routing, as if my internal GPS has recalculated based on various circumstances, an interdisciplinary combination of interests, figuring out an alternate route to the same goals I had sitting in the philosophy department on the third floor of Lubbers Hall in Holland, Michigan.

I bring this up now because I have had, by most standards, a wildly successful year as a writer. And, as an article a friend shared with me this week expressed so well, it is easy to defer to luck when it comes to explaining that, rather than acknowledging that this has been the result of years and years of work -- work that’s not nearly over. Work that’s just getting started.

The work I am familiar with, though the recognition is new. So, much of this year, the parts I haven’t spent writing and editing and tutoring and teaching, has been spent learning how to respond to that recognition. I have had to practice saying thank you, without adding a self-deprecating tagline. I have learned, concretely, why people say, “Never read the comments.” I have met total strangers for the first time and had them say they like my work, and been rendered speechless -- that is, until I said something totally awkward that I wished I could take back as soon as it left my mouth.

I have written home to say, “I was quoted by the New York Times today,” even though my family doesn’t read the New York Times.

This year I learned that success hurts.

No one told me that. No one told me how writing would change when suddenly the audience wasn’t imagined, but real. No one told me that I would have to work harder than ever to overcome the internal demons of my own self-doubt that try to keep the words in my head away from that blank page. No one told me that all of this would feel like a big game of make-believe.

10,000 people could not possibly have read an article I wrote last January. That number cannot be real. Or if it is, that will never, ever happen again.

See what I mean? Even in an essay trying to say, here I am world, embracing my life as a writer -- a life I have worked hard for, a life that has and will continue to require certain kinds of sacrifice, commitment, and solitude, a life I love -- even here, a little bit of that self-deprecating humor sneaks in.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, at the risk of seeming unfeminine, of coming across as overly ambitious instead of sweet, gentle, and receptive, just waiting for something to happen. People have asked me on more than one occasion how I got such-and-such piece published in such-and-such place, and I usually think too hard about how to respond. It feels a bit rude to just tell the truth: I sent it in, and they published it, because it was good.

I’m increasingly convinced that while markets are real, and networking is useful, and sure, luck exists -- what makes it in the end is good writing.

There’s no magic. I’m not playing a game. I’m more stubborn, more persistent, more thick-skinned than I was at eighteen when the college literary magazine sent me packing, and I’m putting words on paper every day regardless of where they end up. The last decade-plus has done me some good, both in the years of practice writing, and the tough shell I’m developing to handle criticism and disappointment. These days rejections -- though they still sting, and though there are more of them than there are acceptances -- feel like proof that I am really doing this thing I have wanted to do since forever ago.

As a young woman whose entire body has been socialized to shrink, to take up as little space as possible, to keep my voice calm and level and quiet, to avoid disrupting the important people and their important conversations, I now have to learn what to do when people are listening. How to stand up, take up space -- physically, verbally, with my whole person. I have to learn how to take credit for the work that I do. In short, I’m learning a new lesson about pride.

Virtue, as I learned in seminary, is a mean between extremes. An excess of pride may be a vice, yet we often forget -- if we were ever taught in the first place -- that a lack of appropriate pride -- excessive humility or shame, the kind of self-deprecating attitude beaten into young women’s bodies and minds since birth -- that too is wrong. A movement toward appropriate pride in one’s God given gifts, used -- I hope -- to bring some truth and beauty into the world -- that lesson may be years in the learning.

Every time I cross my legs, fold my arms, slouch down, and rest my chin on my hand as I so often do, I know I’ve internalized a sense of shame about the space I take up in this world. Every time someone asks me to speak up I know this shame has shaped even my speech patterns. Every time I feel bad about the number on the label of my pants, what I ate for dinner, and the run I did not take, I feel it in my flesh. Every time I apologize before I speak I know that there are lessons I never knew I was learning that I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget.

I’m lucky about one thing, which is that I have people in my life who want me to speak up. People who listen when I do. People who encourage me to eat pie, as well as to write poetry. And so, while I started this essay wanting to write about work, and success, I am also writing about community -- the kind of community that values women’s gifts, that encourages them to grow rather than to shrink, that forms them in the kind of humble pride that exists between those excessive extremes.

For the time being, I just want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being the audience I never expected to have. Thank you for helping me learn pride in a world that would rather I feel shame, and for giving me the chance to say I am working hard for this, and it is worth it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Michelle Bares Arms and Bakes Cookies: So What?

I am humbled and grateful to introduce today's guest post from the brilliant Emma Akpan, a fellow Duke Divinity School graduate. Emma Akpan is an activist and minister living in Raleigh, NC. When not writing about women or repro health, Emma enjoys the gym and Netflix. Emma doesn't think time should be wasted spending sunny days inside or eating bad food.

When Michelle Obama burst by Barak Obama’s side in 2007, announcing her husband’s presidential bid, feminists everywhere, black and white, expected her to roll up her designer sleeves revealing well-toned arms and be our champion. She was going to influence equal pay, she was going to stop violence against women, she was going to break all glass ceilings for all of us. In 2008, she told someone that “for the first time, I was not proud of my county,” and was heavily criticized by right-winged media. She was called Barack’s “baby mama,” a derogatory term for mothers who are no longer in a relationship with their co-parents. They labeled her as “fierce” and “angry.” So naturally, to protect herself, she toned it down a bit. She picked a rather benign subject, healthy living and fitness, and focused on raising her daughters. Although she was still criticized by mostly the right media for forcing children to give up their sweets and goodies, the racialized criticism has waned.

But feminists continued to criticize her. In a recent Politico article, Michelle Cottle accused Michelle Obama of “Leaning Out”, in reference to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, push for women to lean into their careers and leadership. Because Michelle focuses on issues related to domesticity and motherhood, healthy living and exercise, she became a “feminist nightmare.” Because, of course, it is blasphemy for anyone to call themselves a feminist and prefer motherhood over making edgy career choices.

But let’s nuance Michelle Obama’s choices here. True, she didn’t enter the White House with her boxing gloves her publicly introducing policy. She didn’t choose a particularly tough issue as her pet cause. But she did something revolutionary for Black women -- she made the choice to be a mother.

Historically, Black mothers have not had the luxury of keeping a home and primarily raising their children. During slavery, Black mothers nursed white babies, prepared meals for their white slaveholders, cleaned the slaveholders yard, or if they worked in the fields, endured long hours outdoors through forced labor. After Emancipation, not much had changed. Black mothers were expected to work as primary breadwinners of their homes. Their Black male partners did not make enough to maintain a roof over their heads and food for their children, so two incomes were always necessary. Black women didn’t have the choice of staying home and doing what Michelle Obama does -- gardening, baking cookies, and making sure her presidential daughters have a well-rounded education and as normal a life as possible.

Oh, we know Michelle is qualified. Most of us can recite her credentials like a litany. Undergraduate from Princeton, J.D. from Harvard, young associate at a law firm where she met Barack, and years of activism to follow. Yes, she is more than qualified to influence policy.  Yet now, as her husband is president, she has an opportunity to make her daughters a priority. She chose a subject to help other mothers, of all colors, to keep their children healthy as she has chosen to do. There are so many mothers who desperately want to do this for their children. They want to provide healthy home cooked meals so important for their physical and mental growth They want their children to lead a lifestyle that will be the foundation for their careers. But so many mothers also must work 12 – 14 hour days, most of the time taking multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.

Michelle, for many of us, inspires us to work hard and stick to our values so that our children can achieve their dreams. But Linda Hirschman wants to rob Michelle of the privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries by mocking Michelle, saying: “She essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s.” Finally, when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. Being the “lady of a manor” is a privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries, and when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. It reminds me of the poem by Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman” when she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” The dichotomy between White womanhood and Blackness is highlighted in Truth’s piece. White women were allowed to be the pure, cherished and adored women whereas Black women were discarded; our bodies were used and not seen. Michelle Obama is the realized vision of many Black women before her; she is in a highly cherished role, traditionally sacred, as a wife and mother. Her role expands our society’s vision of Black women; we can be educated, enterprising, strong and independent, but also motherly, domestic and feminine.

For once, a Black woman is not an object of labor. And most importantly, it’s nice to see a Black woman have the choice to have a successful career and spend time being a mother. Feminists fight against motherhood and domesticity because society forced them to remain in the home and barred them from financial freedom. Large companies did not hire women. Women were unable to get a credit card until the 1970s. Forced domesticity and blockage from the public arena are important symptoms of patriarchy, but we must remember, feminism is about choice. A woman should do what she pleases, as long as she is doing it freely. Michelle Obama’s motherhood is liberating for many women across the country, because they can continue to dream to provide the same healthy and full lifestyle for their children.