And when I say we, of whom do I speak? It must be a group known to include me. Might it be… people over 50? Seattleites? Speakers of English?
Of course not. You know who I’m talking about. Women.
And what, you might ask, is so wrong with being raised to please?
Nothing at all, if you are born and remain a lovely-to-look-at, ornamental sort of a woman. Nothing at all, if ornamenting the world brings you great joy.
But what if what you long to do is build tall buildings? Play basketball? Conduct high-risk scientific research? Or—in my case—write? And in order to achieve that writing dream, you have to lob your precious words out into the world so they can be rejected over and over and over again until at last, you get lucky and what you’ve written is accepted and printed? Briefly, you are filled with joy—until your freshly published words are actually read. And not everyone likes them. And you want to die because you have displeased a few people.
Men, on the other hand, are raised to risk rejection or die trying. They’re raised to understand for every ten girls they ask out, one might say yes and hey, that’s great! They grow up understanding they won’t get a good job unless they apply for 100. They learn young: licking wounds is wasting time.
Meanwhile, women grow up learning: don’t ask for what you want. Be patient, pretty, good, do everything right—and someone, someday, will read your mind.
Am I oversimplifying? Sure. But take a look at the annual count by the literary nonprofit VIDA of female versus male writers published in prestigious magazines—Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, etcetera. Diet-sized wedges of each pie chart represent articles written by women. I don’t think the problem is that women don’t write great nonfiction. Or they don’t think their writing is good enough. I think women writers don’t submit their work because they fear rejection. Or, like me, they’ve been rejected half a dozen times and they can’t stand the pain.
As a longtime documentary filmmaker, I’ve been rejected by film festivals dozens of times. But here’s the difference: I make films with my husband. Somehow, that helps, because even though I feel every rejection as a personal rejection of me, he knows how to move on and he tugs me along with him. Writing nonfiction for print publications is a newer pursuit for me and I’m flying solo.
My writer friend Isla is the one who got me thinking about this Curse of the Good Girl who internalizes early the paramount importance of pleasing. Isla is 20 years younger than I am. My daughter, 22 and a working journalist, gets it too.
The VIDA count is a vivid reminder, to writers like Isla, my daughter and me, that there’s more at stake here than our self-esteem. We need to keep submitting our work, and we need to get really good at handling rejection, because collectively, we still have a lot of catching up to do.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.