I feel like that’s the thing that’s holding back many young women writers, and many young women in general now—this idea that we don’t put our work out until we believe it’s immaculate, and there’s no such thing as perfection to begin with. Secondly, the lack of a perfected idea never stopped men from speaking out! To be successful I think you really have to shove yourself forward, and I consider myself really lucky that I’ve never held myself back in those ways. To a fault! I’m sort of a pamphleteer for my own work, standing on a street corner ringing a bell, shouting, “Look what I made! Look what I made!”
I feel that Elizabeth Gilbert is right, but I wanted to talk a little bit about bell-ringing, and why women are held back, and how much people resist women shoving themselves forward—how much they resist women doing something that might lead to success.
Compliments are two-edged swords for women: thinking well of yourself is a dangerous activity people will try to stop you engaging in.
I remember vividly being sixteen and having a friend come up to me and compliment my outfit. ‘Thank you!’ I said. ‘Wow,’ she said, and blinked. ‘Normally people say—oh hey, I like *your* thing, but no, it’s cool you just said thanks! It’s great you’re so confident!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘No, I really like your top. I’m sorry.’
And from then on, I remembered to compliment back rather than act like I was so great I could just take a compliment. If possible, I complimented first, just to be safe!
And there’s nothing wrong with complimenting other people. And my friend is and was a lovely person. It wasn’t her fault she said it, or my fault I took it that way. It’s that this is a system that tries to get you coming and going.
THE WORLD: Have high self-esteem generally.
LADY: I’m so cute.
THE WORLD: Uh but don’t be vain!
LADY: I’m so smart.
THE WORLD: Do not be a stuck-up bitch!
LADY: I quite like my…
THE WORLD: Gosh you think HIGHLY of yourself, don’t you?
“Girls are trained to say, ‘I wrote this, but it’s probably really stupid.’ Well, no, you wouldn’t write a novel if you thought it was really stupid. Men are much more comfortable going, ‘I wrote this book because I have a unique perspective that the world needs to hear.’ Girls are taught from the age of seven that if you get a compliment, you don’t go, ‘Thank you’, you go, ‘No, you’re insane.’ “ – Lena Dunham
It’s not that guys don’t get insecure, too. Of course they do: they are human. But it’s true that girls are *taught* insecurity, via a barrage of social pressure… pressure from everybody.
A friend of mine wrote a post a few weeks ago talking about being a woman writer online, and the things you heard from people while… being a woman writer online. Two of those things were: it didn’t sell so she’s a failure, and the other was: it did sell and I liked it but it’s rubbish.
Those two things (she does sell/she doesn’t sell) can’t be true of one writer at one time: obviously she was talking about stuff that happens, across the board, to women writers. Several people, of course, rushed to inform her that she was a bad writer (so she deserves what she gets!) and a bad person (so she deserves what she gets!). Because of course, she had to be whining about how she was treated personally, and she had to be told she deserved it.
Pretty classic method of trying to shut someone up. And never mind that a LOT of women writers, with a lot of different careers, reblogged it: probably they were bad people too, or bad writers too, or whiners, or making everything about sexism, or when they thought it applied to them they were mistaken. (So silly.)
I see this all the time, from people who are openly like ‘Yuck, feminists’ in real life, to people online who are like ‘I am one thousand per cent dedicated to feminism, and I haven’t noticed that a huge amount of my hatred is devoted to women doing it wrong and I love no lady real or fictional as much as I love Bucky Barnes/Tom Hiddleston/Joseph Fink/Derek Hale/a member of One Direction chosen by lottery.’
And it has a profound effect on women’s ability to do their jobs. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, not being a bell-ringer for your work is holding you back: but being a bell-ringer for your work is something that comes with the risk of being attacked, feeling lousy… and stopping being a bell-ringer for your work, learning it’s too risky, sacrificing a bit of yourself to preserve the rest.
This training makes women very quiet for a while, because that’s how self-doubt works: you don’t think ‘it’s the world, the world’s all messed up.’ You think: it’s me. You think, I just have to do better. You’re ashamed that you didn’t do better before you spoke up.
But there is no way to do well enough: there is no time there won’t be pushback when you speak up, because the desire behind the pushback, conscious or unconscious, is not for you to do better. It’s for you to stop.
Emily Gould’s talked about the impact an online attack had on her professionally.
‘I felt fear doing events around publication. Not stage fright, fear for my physical safety. Instead of planning celebrations I was arranging with bookstores and my publisher for adequate security at events. I felt worried that the location of my apartment had been revealed in so many profiles. It’s not like I experienced physical trauma or was tortured but I felt under attack. This wasn’t something that “happened on the internet” or something that could have been avoided by “just unplugging.” Talking to readers, doing events, and promoting books online is my job.
I still haven’t sorted out what kind of damage was done.’
And leaving aside individual examples, science has shown the barrage of nasty messages women get for just existing, let alone daring to do something.
‘The study found that female bots received on average 100 malicious private messages a day while the male bots received an average of 3.7. ’
So ladies, getting harassed about thirty times more than dudes? And that’s just online… think about what happens in real life, like Joanne Harris having a publisher reject her based on her ‘lack of physical appeal.’
One cannot help but think ‘Gosh, if I was receiving thirty times less crap, I might have a better opinion of myself and I might get more done!’
And it’s not just online, and it’s not just publishing, sometimes it’s also your nearest and dearest who have an interest in shutting you up: the people you love and should be able to trust.
Zelda Fitzgerald had her work stolen from her by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, who frankly said he was just typing out her diaries sometimes, and she was depressed (who can blame her!) because stories written solely by her got more money when F. Scott Fitzgerald was listed as co-author… or when he was listed as the only author!
It’s very reminiscent of the way Walter Keane pretended that he was the one painting his wife Margaret Keane’s paintings, which were a phenomenon in the 1960s.
(She won the court case by having a paint-off.
MARGARET: I painted the paintings. Hey, I’ll paint one right now! In court. Let’s both paint one! Right now. In court.
WALTER: I… uh… brought this note from home to say I’m delicate, so…)
And yet, *would* the paintings have sold like they did if everyone had known they were painted by a lady from the start? I don’t know, but I’d guess probably not.
Which doesn’t make it right. Women deserve credit for their work, and they deserve a fair valuation of their work, and often they do not get either.
(THE WORLD: You want the CREDIT?
LADY: Well, I made it…
THE WORLD: But maybe you didn’t! Maybe your husband did it! Maybe your brother Branwell did it!
LADY: And also, work takes time, and I need to eat.
THE WORLD: And now you want to get PAID? Where’s your pride in your work, you money-grubbing ho?
LADY: Oh, *now* I’m meant to be all about the art?)
It is not just one’s husbands who snake women’s work: writing novels at all used to be sneered at as a lady thing, and then suddenly men started doing it and there was serious important literature, and women should stop doing that thing they invented! On a smaller scale but in the same vein, a woman called Victoria Lambert created Doctor Who, but no women have been allowed to write Doctor Who episodes for six years and counting.
It is not, of course, writing but all work done by women that is devalued in various ways: Female scientists’ contributions are overlooked and forgotten, teaching changed from a male-dominated job to a female-dominated job in the 1800s when people realised a) oh no all kids need teaching! and b) oh wait thank god we can just pay the ladies half as much… and it is still a female-dominated and thus underpaid job today, the games industry chases women away savagely (http://elizabethsampat.com/the-truth-about-zoe-quinn/), actresses are not given their own movies to lead (51% of the population, 10.8% of the lead roles in big movies!), women directors are just not given jobs (6% of 2013’s big movies had women directors), women take jobs as film editors instead of directors and then are not given credit for their contribution to films (e.g. Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited all Martin Scorsese’s movies since 1980), women have 5% of Fortune 100 CEO positions, Taylor Swift gets it in the neck for writing songs about her own love life while Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, to name but one dude, can do the same thing for a decade and nobody cares.
It’s not easy to love yourself or what you do or what you have created. It’s not easy to promote yourself or praise yourself. The whole situation is fixed to make it difficult.
Bell-ringing is so complicated. A writer friend of mine asked for several promotions she knew male authors who sold less well than she had received: she got turned down. So she literally invented a new kind of promotion. They gave it to her in sheer puzzlement.
(It worked, and since then many people have been given that kind of promotion. Mostly dudes. The writer friend who invented it has been criticised a lot for not being a true artiste, and being arrogant. The dudes who got the promotion she invented have almost without exception gone on to win prizes women seldom win, be reviewed in many major publications that feature very few women, and talk about their own genius and get others to talk about it too.)
Dorothy L. Sayers, a badass writer who knew what she was talking about, said it was surprising anyone going through the wringer of sexism ‘retained any rag of sanity or self-respect.’
That’s why bell-ringing is such a complicated thing. It’s why shoving yourself forward is so difficult. ‘Well, just do it anyway’ is good advice, the only advice possible, but it’s also important to acknowledge what gets in the way of doing what we want to do. So that for every time we get pushback or feel ashamed, we remember to celebrate rather than be ashamed.
Despite the pressures of the world, so many women have done and made so many things! Just concentrating on writing, they: invented the novel. Popularised science fiction. Now, they’ve popularised young adult fiction and invented new adult fiction.
So, if you manage to get by and think you’re not so bad most days, that’s a triumph. If you manage to create something despite the voices inside and outside your head telling you not to, that’s amazing. If you make a mistake, own up to it, but know it’s probably not as bad a mistake as everyone is rushing to tell you it was. If you feel shamefaced about something you have done or made, that’s an injustice the world has put in your way—it’s not because you did or made something to be ashamed of. If you can create something, and believe in it and yourself enough to talk about it and think about how to get it out in the world… you have accomplished a series of amazing deeds. You have triumphed against a series of adversities.
That’s something worth bell-ringing about.