La Impostora Regresa

Wednesday was a great day. An essay I worked hard on and was proud of was published on The Rumpus. I was (and am) crazy-thrilled. I pretty much never send my work out. I either post it here or leave it gathering dust in the back folders of my cloud drive. So writing a pitch, sending my essay out … it was a huge deal for me. And then to have the piece accepted … ! Of course I was happy.

In the essay, I give white people some marching orders, elaborate on something I need them to do. And, shortly after I shared the essay, two different white women commented to say they would be changing their behavior post haste.

Their comments surprised me. I mean, yes, I was telling people to make a change … but was I expecting them to do what I’d asked? Was I expecting them to tell me they’d listened to what I’d said?

My first response to their comments was to start writing back, something along the lines of: “Oh, well, you don’t have to make that change! I mean, if you *want* to, sure, but don’t do it on my account!”

Happily, I stopped myself from typing or sending those messages. Because I was asking them to make a change. Quite clearly. asking.

So why was I so quick to back off my request the moment someone let me know they were considering it?

Oh yes, she’s back!! La Impostora and her twice-damned syndrome!

I know, of course, that this is still a beast I have to battle. I haven’t kidded myself that I had somehow magically vanquished Impostor Syndrome as I lay sleeping. I’ve simply been waiting for her to rear her ugly head again. But I wasn’t expecting that head-rearing to happen in response to publishing this essay. And that’s silly, of course. I had put my work out in the world and it was getting a good response … of COURSE I would suddenly find myself pushing back against Impostor Syndrome. What better, more obvious time would there be for me to be showered with gifts from this treasure trove of insecurity?

Who am I to think I can tell white folks what they should and shouldn’t be doing? Who am I to think my feelings about people’s behavior meant enough, mattered enough, carried enough weight that I could say, “stop doing this thing you’re doing that’s upsetting to me?”

I’ve wrestled with my Impostor in the past. So many times. There have been times when I haven’t noticed her creeping into my thoughts. Those times, she has been able to drive a wedge between me and whatever goal I’m pushing toward. Those times are the most frustrating because I don’t recognize the pattern of self-denigration and self-denial until it’s too late to stop the thoughts and move forward. Sometimes I am able to see what I’m doing early enough in the pattern to shoulder past my Impostor and get shit done. The hard truth is that the Impostor wins these head-to-heads far too often. I am hoping that one day I’ll have done enough work on myself that, even if I still have to fight La Impostora, those fights will all fall into the second category, the push her aside and get back to work category.

In the case of my essay on The Rumpus, there were many opportunities for La Impostora to shove me backwards over a cliff. I had originally sent that essay to another publication. It was accepted, and then I received a contract that had some troubling language in it. I balked at signing, but my Impostor slapped me back: who was I to question what An Important Well-Respected Magazine wanted from me? She instructed me to sign and shut up. But I couldn’t get past my hesitation. I reached out to the mag’s editor to suggest some revisions to the contract language. By the time I learned that the magazine wouldn’t budge on the demands, I’d received an acceptance from The Rumpus … which was when La Impostora smacked me again: How dare I consider pulling my submission from The Magazine and moving forward with The Rumpus? And, too, there was no way I was good enough to be published on The Rumpus, so I should just forget all about that.

Sigh.

And now she’s back again, telling me to back down from the entire premise of my essay simply because someone read and respected what I said.

Listen (speaking entirely to myself here, but sometimes these things need to be said aloud and in public): I am a person who has the right to like or dislike whatever I like or dislike. I have the right to tell people to stop doing something that displeases or disturbs me … and they—because they are sovereign, fully-autonomous beings—have as much right to decide to do what I’ve asked as they have to tell me to shove off because they’re under no obligation to listen to anything I have to say.

I have no problem with folks taking issue with the point of that essay. I was ready for that, steeling myself against how hurt or angry it would make me. I was ready to defend myself, to haul out receipts and invite folks to step back. The few negative comments I’ve seen haven’t troubled me at all.

And maybe that’s a sign of progress in my fight against La Impostora. In the past, if someone questioned my position, I’d have been inclined to turn around and question my position right along with them. I mean, if something I said raised their eyebrows, I must have made a mistake, right? I’m not saying that I don’t make mistakes. I’m saying I no longer instantly assume that anyone questioning me must have the right of it.

I tend to think I’ll be fighting La Impostora forever. I don’t want that to be true, but it feels true. Seeing ways that I’m getting stronger against her helps. And I know I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome more than once, but the more I “talk out loud” about it here, the better I seem to get at recognizing the pattern before it derails me. If it seems annoyingly repetitive, you’re welcome to scroll on by. Imma keep working through.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

F is for: Fact-Finding

My lazy effort of last night made clear how much I don’t yet know about the chōka … and I need to find out if I have any chance of making it through this month. Back to The Google I went today for a little research

My first surprise was finding that the length of this form isn’t set. The poems I’ve been writing are, in fact, the shortest form of chōka. The stacking of five- and seven-syllable lines atop one another can just go on and on until they are cut off by that final extra seven. If I wrote the syllable counts from the point of view of my rusty math knowledge, I might write it this way:

In other words, the five- and seven-syllable couplets could go on and on to create super-long poems. The final seven-syllable line is like the full-stop that ends the poem. (I know it’s entirely ridiculous that I just tried to use math to explain the pattern of this poem … and I know that there are other ways to illustrate a repeating decimal, but the little line is what I was taught — was that Miss Leuchten who taught me that? — and I’m sticking to it!)

In a long chōka, the final 5-7-5-7-7 began to be used as an envoi, a final stanza to comment on or encapsulate the whole poem. Good envois began to stand alone as poems … creating the tanka! WAIT. Let me say that again. Good envois began to stand alone as poems … creating. the. TANKA!! How excellent to find that this form I’ve chosen is the parent form of the tanka. Isn’t research cool?

This last bit explains so much about the tanka. It’s supposed to express a full moment or emotion, and that started because it was drawing an end to a poem that could have been as long as a hundred lines.

I’ve also done some chōka reading — ha! maybe should have started with that before writing, eh? — and that’s been illuminating, too. Seeing the ways the chōka almost tell a story and seem like a kind of prose poem in that way gives me ideas, gives me something to think about as I try moving forward with this form.

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “discovery” poem, which is funny to see in light of everything I learned on my fact-finding mission.

Discovery

Flexing my muscles
trying to forge a place, here —
across new landscape,
wide, unknown territory.

I’m stretching, stretching.

It’s nervous-making and strange
but I’m determined.
Unsure what to hope to find
to keep my eye on
what patch of ground to reach for

I stutter and stop
and again, stutter and stop.

Searching, I’m kept whole
to wander, wonder, look
to try, keep pushing
the pen always in my hand
my willingness held open.

I don’t know if the skipped lines or spaces are allowed, but I went with them anyway. I certainly like this better than the last couple of attempts. Reading more about the chōka has made me more curious to keep at it this month, see what I can come up with.



C is for Chōka

After I wrote yesterday’s poem, I clicked over to Facebook and was greeted with the “your memories” post, FB’s lovely, daily reminder that on this day in the past you were often doing way more interesting and fun things.

Well, I discovered that, three years ago yesterday, I was in very much the same place as far as poetic emotion. Yesterday I wrote “Broken Silence.” On April 3rd, 2014, I wrote “Silence Broken“! How wild is that?

Dangerous for me to go read that arun, however. I really like it. Really like it. Makes me want to send the chōka packing and pick up with the aruns again, but no. I’m going to stay here a while. I’m curious about the chōka, so I’ll stick with it.

This morning I stepped onto the subway an into some drama. A woman was angrily exclaiming. She was graphic and vulgar and made everyone uncomfortable, but she wasn’t active, wasn’t doing anything other than randomly shouting her outrage. Not an ideal trip to work, but thinking about her later called up today’s poem:

Your anger frightens
everyone on this train car —
except … one woman
tall, Black, sitting unconcerned
at your hostile side.
Her serenity contrasts
your agitation,
living tragi-comic masks
this slow ride to Manhattan.

__________

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7.



 

Giant-slaying

Spent my afternoon talking about David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. This is the first Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read … well, heard. I didn’t read it, I listened to it. About three and a half times. It’s another book club pick I thought I wouldn’t enjoy, so I borrowed it as an audiobook from the library.

“Enjoy” doesn’t seem like the right word at this point, as I work my way through listen number 4.

Book group met for hours today … and it wasn’t enough time to talk through everything we wanted to talk about in this book. We had a great discussion, and we still couldn’t fit the whole book in. I, for one, would have been happy to talk for a few more hours so we could discuss all the things. Well … not really, but I am sorry I won’t get to hear those aspects of the book examined by the smart ladies in my book group.

Have you read this book? Which section(s) did you find most compelling? Have you read others of Gladwell’s books? Which would you recommend I pick up next?



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

A place for everything and everything in its place.

So, we have:

Woman without her man is nothing.

And also:

Come and eat grandma!

And slowly, even the most stubborn souls begin to see the value of punctuation.

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Come and eat, grandma!

Oh, what a different a few dots and squiggles can make.

These are famous ones, of course. I was trying to remember a really wonderful one that wound up in print a while ago, and finally found it:

And this is all silly and a good reminder that commas are life savers (I know Ray’s family and dog are grateful for them!) … but there was a story the other day that also proved that a well-placed comma can mean the difference between winning and losing a legal battle.

I’ll admit that I’m a latecomer to the Oxford comma. I was forced to use it in grade school. But I was forced to do a lot of things with my writing in grade school, and many of them I heartily disagreed with and despised. Once I had a little more freedom to write how I wanted, I began to jettison those things I didn’t care for, and the Oxford comma fell by the wayside with the other castoffs. People have argued with me about it quite a bit over the years — which maybe says something about the folks I hang with¹ — but I have remained stubbornly against. I taught English for many years, and I taught the Oxford comma … but also made it clear that a) I didn’t use it myself and b) no one’s grade would be damaged by the decision not to use it.

But then I got my current job. I got this job, and one of the first things I had to do was edit the big, serious report we were producing. And before the editing began, I was asked to put together a style guide so that all of the people who were adding writing could try to have the same set of rules in mind as they worked and so that changes I made to text would all follow clear guidelines.

Making that style guide was, I have to admit, fun for me (which most definitely says something about the kind of person I am!). I saw the guide as my chance to lay down the law, list out my writing pet peeves, make our sleek and shiny report conform to my writing style. (Oh yes, a little power is truly a dangerous thing!)

Pretty quickly in my style-guiding I ran smack into the Oxford comma. And somehow, for reasons I couldn’t explain and can’t explain now, that comma suddenly made sense. Made perfect, why-didn’t-I-ever-see-this-before sense. And I’ve been using it ever since. (Somewhere, my 6th grade teacher is pointing, laughing, and saying, “I told you so!”)



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices

__________

¹ This wacky-grammarians-on-my-friend-list business did not extend to the guy who came to a party I threw years ago … who smugly diagrammed the sentences of the people who spoke to him. You may think this is a clever party trick. Trust me when I tell you that it really isn’t.

Deadlines, Doubt, and Dealing with Impostor Syndrome 

I had an important deadline Saturday, had to submit something or I’d miss my chance. I found out about this deadline in January. Jan.u.ar.y. I’ve had many weeks to make this happen. Here’s how I worked on it:

  1. Stared at the information.
  2. Thought about how much I wanted that thing.
  3. Stared at the information.
  4. Wondered why anyone would ever consider me for that thing.
  5. Clicked away from the page, telling myself I couldn’t work on it then because I had so much going on and I had to do some homework before I’d be ready to work on that.
  6. Ignore it for a few days.
  7. Repeat from step one.

Over. And over. And over again.

I finally started working on this on Sunday. Yes, when I had hardly any time left to get my work in order. Of course.

Every night last week, I sat down to work, and every night I pushed away from my computer, telling myself I would never finish and shouldn’t be trying anyway because I’m all wrong for this opportunity.

Needless to say, this is horrifically frustrating.

So what’s my story? Clearly, as is true for so many people, particularly women, particularly women of color, I keep running smack into the solid granite wall of Impostor Syndrome.

There are plenty of reasons to love the amazingly talented Viola Davis. Having her call out Impostor Syndrome just moments after being handed her Academy Award was kind of amazing.

I read  about this thing years ago, maybe as long ago as 2011. I recognized myself then, recognized the ways I tear myself down, doubt myself, struggle against the fear that I’ll be unmasked at any moment. On one level, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone, that there was actually a name for the way I thought about myself. At the same time, it was disturbing to discover the realness of what I was doing. I recognized it, but I didn’t try to do anything about it. I didn’t know what to do about it. Yes, there were things I’d learned about stopping a thought, replacing it with a better, kinder, more based-in-reality thought. I’d seen that work when I tried it with bad body thoughts (it’s a body/fat acceptance thing … fodder for another post). But I don’t seem able to catch myself when I sank into Impostor fears, at least not immediately, not quickly enough to stop myself from sinking. I figure out what I’m doing only after I’ve fully shot myself down.

I may have only learned about Impostor Syndrome a few years ago, but I’ve been letting it hold me back for so much longer. All those times I didn’t stand up for myself, just accepted whatever awful treatment was doled out to me …Yeah, that was me believing I deserved to be treated like crap, that whoever was cutting me down was simply seeing me for who and what I really was and letting me know. When a supervisor lost confidence in me and stopped backing my play, I never questioned it. It made perfect sense to me. Clearly she had finally realized I was a fraud.

I had been planning to write that I’ve been losing the fight against Impostor Syndrome for my whole life. But I’ve been trying to track back to when I first felt unworthy, and it’s definitely not my whole life. But it is easily the last 15 years, and that’s a painfully long time.

I shrugged it off a moment ago, but stopping the thought really does have to be step one here. I can’t fight the cycle if I don’t see it coming and cut it off at the knees. I need to see those moments as they happen and shut them right down.

And, in some ways, this is a perfect time to be pushing myself in this way. I’m about to be putting myself out in the spotlight in a couple of ways that will surely trigger Impostor Syndrome again and again. Ramping up my vigilance now, at the start of this “spotlight season,” will be good for me … and it will be challenging, and exhausting, and demoralizing … and so helpful in the long run.

Yes, I can already see that this has to be part of my Be Your Own Cabana Boy self-care plan. Maybe one of the most important parts. Seeing myself clearly, not putting myself down, not standing in my own way … these things are as important as feeding myself well, as getting enough sleep. It all comes back to that comment I threw in so casually at the end of yesterday’s post: I’m worth it. Those L’Oreal ads were clearly onto something. I’m worth this hard work, so it’s time to put in the time.

Is Impostor Syndrome something you’ve dealt with? If so, what have you done to push back against it? If you’ve never faced this, I’m super happy for you, and I’m also super curious about you! How do you think you’ve avoided it?



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride!


It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!