“Stop it, can’t you just smile? You’re so much prettier when you smile.”
My mother was right on one level. Putting a smile on your face can change your mood. But I was just a kid and in our house, there was a different intention. Sullen children made people nervous and it was just the start of the business of learning how to behave. I grew up in a “seen and not heard” home; a “keep the secret” home. Not that unusual at all.
It’s isn’t like teaching kids to lie, exactly. It’s more like the introduction to a world of false walls. We learn passive aggressive behaviors: if we’re honest, people won’t like us, so in order to get our way, it’s smarter to manipulate the facts a bit. It’s a woman’s super-power. It’s even acceptable to avoid an awkward situation by telling a white lie, if you can convince yourself it’s for someone’s well-being. It seems kind, maybe even smart in the beginning. But pretty soon the white lies take on all sorts of colors and the layers of passive deception become a stiff overlay of uncomfortable anxiety. Then one day you wake up and you’re a politician.
Some of us have an exaggerated sense of the truth–a phrase that a future ex-husband of mine once used to describe me to our therapist. A kinder word for that is honesty. It’s rare enough to seem like a personality disorder.
True to form, one if the first things THEY tell you, THEY, meaning the authorities in the publishing world, is never listen to anything your friends or family say about your writing. People who love you have no taste, don’t understand the writing world, and are the last people who will be honest. Never ever listen to a word. No. Period.
Fourteen months into this book process, I had lost perspective. I asked an incredibly difficult task of a tiny-few of my friends. I chose them carefully: they should be serious readers, balanced thinkers, and straight talkers, while being a range of ages, politics and backgrounds. I am fortunate to say, I have friends who fall easily into all these categories. Early, fragile drafts of my book were mailed out for their comments. It wasn’t from a desire for flattery. I needed the truth and I preferred it come from people I could trust.
I knew I was asking a lot time-wise, but in hindsight, I didn’t appreciate the full challenge. Neither did my friends, but it might have dawned on all of us about the same time. It was pretty awkward–like waking up naked in a strange apartment. We all chose our words carefully. Vulnerability is a huge strength–just like honesty. Their feedback was precious to me; the praise and the criticism.
It was about then that I remembered what THEY said about not listening to friends. Am I so crazy that I would just discount experts in this fast-changing field, dispensing what was obviously common sense advice? Who should I trust?
You’re right. Some things aren’t meant for one-size-fits-all approach.
This week I’m writing the last page of my book–the acknowledgment page. It’s a landmark; a privilege to get to this place. I’m feeling mushy about it, in a crush note written in pink ink with hand-drawn hearts and flowers sort of way. I’ll try not to embarrass all of us.
Then maybe I’ll begin a new habit of randomly writing acknowledgement pages just so I can remember how good it feels to let my friends hold me up for an hour. How would yours start?
So—did your friends live up to the expectation of valued truth-telling?
Loved the posting.
I guess we’ll find out, soon enough…
That secret keeping thing—-that was my job in the family, oldest child and the secret keeper. And I learned it so well that years later I never could tell anyone how awful my first husband was, but instead, sugar coated everything and put the best salesmanship slant on my whole life. What a burden to put on an 8 year old–an awful enough burden still at 40. Rather than being a secret keeper now, I’m just circumspect. Spewing was never my style but I feel I have better wisdom on my side now. Perhaps the worst thing about being the designated secret keeper (an ickier job than designated driver) is the never ending cloak of shame that you can’t shed. Shame carrying became a habit hard to break-partly because life continually offers you something to feel ashamed about when you don’t meet your personal expectations for yourself or someone you have no control over does things that slop onto you. (Truth sets us free, so to speak, only if we LET IT. When I thank my current husband for his loving me so well, his reply is often “.you let me”. There’s allot to be said about “allowing”.)
I think your book’s effect on readers is going to surprise you. It may very well be overwhelming.
I am looking forward to reading it!
Beautifully stated and so understood. I made bad choices after leaving home, too, a legacy of secrets leaking shame… Thank you for your honesty.
Coming from a children are seen and not heard family, I understand some, and a smile can hide so much. So glad as you have grown and evolved that your smile is still there with a great sense of wisdom and humor. How cool you have written your acknowledgement! Can’t wait!
You are right, a smile can have so many meanings–good and bad. Thanks, not long now.
Fifteen years or so ago I was called by a strength and weightlifting coach who wanted me to write an article (actually, a series of articles) for his brand new website. A good friend of mine, someone who was already a respected writer in the strength and coaching world himself, put a bug in this guy’s ear and vouched for me. It had never dawned on me to try to get published, but with much prompting and prodding I finally sat down and wrote my first article. Mostly, I wrote about myself and my experiences in the Iron Game. Looking for feedback, I nervously emailed a rough draft to my friend. A day dragged by before the phone rang. “Zo,” he said, “Nobody
wants to read about you.” I cringed. I felt embarrassed. Then I got angry. How dare he push me into an arena I never asked to enter, then have the audacity to criticize my feeble attempt to deliver as promised? He told me to try again, and this time write for my audience. I said screw it, I was done trying to write for other people. I’d stick to my Q & As and women’s strength sites. But the days ticked by and it ate at me. I knew I could do what was asked, I was just having a knee-jerk response to constructive criticism. Finally, about a week later, I sat down and tried again. The result was probably the best article I’ve ever had published. It wasn’t about me. 🙂
Sometimes friends and family can be honest. Truthfully, I think it’s more about how well you handle the criticism, not who gives it. I credit my friend for launching and supporting a very important and rewarding era of my life. It would have been my loss if I’d passed on his opinion and help.
I agree, writing with a connection for the reader yet personal enough to hold interest is a really hard thing. It’s the biggest fear I have about memoir–they’re only good if they get past being self-indulgent. Awk. As for criticism, I think horse people have a leg up there. We had to let go of our ego long ago, horses require it… Thanks for this honest, ouchy comment.
I haven’t found anything you’ve written thus far to be self-indulgent. Have you used yourself or snippets of your story to connect? Of course! But you don’t get stuck there, which leads me to believe you’ve got this stuff down. (And yes, working with horses means letting go, lifting iron doesn’t) I can’t wait to read it!
Thanks, I have a rational fear of self-indulgence. 🙂 Soon now.
Years ago, when I was still working for a newspaper, a then cherished college of mine referred to another one as easy to deal with and therefore easy to manipulate because this guy was – honest. And because he always spoke his mind, you never had to be careful around him and you never had to wonder if he was plotting something. I was flabbergasted. Because I had always considered honesty a trait to be rather proud of (I think I am an honest person). And now it was presented as a weakness, because it makes the honest person easier to manipulate. I decided to give a f*** (sorry), and stay an honest person – even if it makes me vulnerable.
It a strong position, and the only one a horse can understand. And yes, it gets used against us from time to time. Small price to pay… Thanks, great comment.