I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hays, a woman whose writing I genuinely admire. The question I was excited to ask, probably because I’ve been trying to pinpoint my own answer, was about her biggest fear as a writer. Her response was not only unflinchingly honest, but uncomfortably rooted in the culturally constructed baggage women writers carry from one accomplishment to another.
Hays began answering my question by talking about her success as an emerging essayist – success that has come quickly. She initially got her B.A. in geology and M.S. in hydrogeology, pursuing a career as a scientist before leaving that world in 2001 to raise a family and, lucky for us, write. As an introduction into the world of publishing, Hays entered one of her first essays into the Iowa Review’s nonfiction contest in 2009, which she subsequently won. She then went on to win the Normal Prize Contest in Nonfiction with her second essay. Last year, Hays was chosen as one of two nonfiction winners of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award.
When I first learned how much Hays had accomplished in such a short time, I had to check myself. The suctioned tentacles of jealousy slinked up my spine as I tried to be supportive of the talented woman who’d generously agreed to talk to me. She detailed her path to publication so unapologetically that I’ll admit part of me wanted her writing to be less than worth the accolades she’d received. Somehow, it would be better for me and my writing if hers was obviously flawed, if her awards were unearned. Of course, that isn’t the case.
The guilt I felt from this secret desire compounded when Hays revealed she suffered from, “a persistent sense of fraudulence. My biggest fear as a writer,” she said, “is that my writing is fundamentally selfish, masturbatorily indulgent, grossly exhibitionist, and devoid of true value to the world, and that I am therefore unworthy of whatever good things may come my way through it.”
The feeling of unworthiness or fraudulence isn’t a revolutionary confession from a writer. I know I’ve kept that feeling in my back pocket or felt it stuck to the bottom of my shoe as I try to move forward with a difficult project. I’ve heard it expressed in my MFA program from writers who consistently worry about whether or not they can make a contribution to their community by writing, or if it’s all just a waste of time. So we build each other up as best we can. We affirm each other’s place in the writing world as we struggle for some measure of success.
But Hays was getting at something more. It’s not just the fear of unworthiness as a writer – It’s her focus on women in particular that made her confession different. Hays explained, “There are also gender, minority, and educational biases that go along with feelings of fraudulence. For instance, more women than men suffer from feelings of phoniness. Especially perfectionistic, highly educated women.”
I know those women. I see them walking the halls of my MFA program and hear them apologetically whisper news of publications and earned opportunities. I can’t remember the last time a fellow female writer accepted a compliment without a sense of embarrassment or a need to minimize her achievement. In fact, I’m one of those women. I was recently a featured alum on my alma mater’s website. Such a small thing, and yet, I didn’t want anyone in my program to know. I felt uncomfortable talking about even the smallest honors. I feared the potential accusations of self-importance and, more specifically, I feared the judgment I’d shown Karen Hays.
A survey last year from Boston College found that women in academia graduate with less confidence than when they started, fueling this “imposter syndrome.” Even though women’s GPAs tended to be higher, they were much harsher when assessing their abilities compared to their male counterparts. Hays gave me some insight on this issue when she pointed out, “cognitive psychologists have long recognized that men tend to attribute their successes to internal factors and their failures to external ones, and that with women the thinking is reversed. Women are prone to credit their wins to dumb luck, and to illogically believe they earn dumb luck through sacrifice and suffering.”
The first time I had something published, it felt like I’d won a raffle rather than earned an acceptance because of my hard work. Of course, I had been working hard. I’d taken workshops, written countless versions of the same poems, revised myself into confusion, and mailed out (oh, how I wish more journals used Submittable then) my work to enough journals that I cursed the cost of stamps. Even after all of that, like Hays said, it felt like dumb luck. I was an imposter. I’d sufficiently tricked some poor slush pile reader into thinking I could write well. And I told people from my writing community in a way that would acknowledge the dumb luck I’d stumbled into. Why? Because that’s how I thought it was done. I didn’t want people to say I thought I was better than I am. I didn’t want my peers to view me negatively. More importantly, deep down, I believed I was a fraud.
I also knew I wasn’t alone in that belief. Hays reached to the center of the issue when she said, “Symptoms of fraudulence syndrome include superstition and masochism. We women seek our demons beneath our own skin. Our own skin!” After my interview with Karen Hays, I wanted to put her in a classroom and place all of the women writers I know in a circle. I wanted her to tell them communities of women need to embrace the worthiness of what we have to say. It’s important we acknowledge that our fears exist. It’s important that we talk about where they come from.
Obviously, I fit into the mold Hays is talking about, but not all women identify with the issues she describes. There are women who can accept affirmations of their ability without feeling embarrassed. There are women who clearly see their stumbling blocks as outside themselves and can assess their merit positively. So why am I not one of those women, and why am I, truthfully, hesitant to become one? For me, the answer is two-fold.
First, as suggested in the Boston College survey, part of it is cultural. Women are conditioned to minimize their achievements under the guise of modesty and humility, and it’s hard to break through that expectation. When I graduated from my bachelor’s program, I visited career services to discuss my resume with a representative who claimed he could help me tailor my resume to make me more desirable to an employer. After picking over my meager two pages of retail jobs and preschool teaching, he honed in on my GPA. I was then instructed to remove my 4.0 from the first page because it looked “braggy.” He said no employer would care about the GPA I’d worked so hard for, and in fact, many employers would be deterred by someone who appeared too book-smart. What makes me angry is that I did it. Without question, I removed my GPA as a way to combat negative assumptions about who I was based on my accomplishments. Would the representative in career services have said the same thing to me if I were male? I can’t be sure, but this attitude towards smart, accomplished women is prevalent, even amongst female communities. So why do we do it to ourselves?
This brings me back to those feelings of jealousy I harbored for Hays’s success. Women are hardest on other women. We secretly, and sometimes publicly, judge women who shun any pretense of embarrassment or unworthiness in exchange for celebratory acceptance of success. We are bombarded by popular myths of how women should embody the essence of humility, and far too often, we buy it. We decide these women don’t deserve their success. We tear them down. We deconstruct what they’ve accomplished in order to find holes, nepotism, or explanations for why they have what we want. I’ve been part of these hallway conversations more times than I want to admit throughout my academic career. It all comes back to feelings of fraudulence and the destructive concept that there isn’t enough room for all of us. That somehow women who achieve success as writers do so by taking something from other women seeking to do the same. The only thing we achieve when we give into these judgments is the perpetuation of female insecurity. We reaffirm for ourselves and our peers that, when you’re a woman, success isn’t something to be promoted or unapologetically shared with the writing community.
I’d like to think this understanding will change the way I accept any reward for my work in the future, but I’m not sure it will. The fears are too great. They’ve gnawed at my bones for too long, the bite marks deep and irreversible. In her book of essays, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay writes, “Don’t tear other women down, because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important.” The best I can do is change the way I judge other women writers. In my MFA program, I can strive to appreciate the celebrators, the women who don’t shy away from their worth as writers. I can do this while I battle my own feelings of fraudulence, feelings that stifle the hope that I deserve to be heard.
About the author:
Christen Noel writes and teaches in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where she’s also an associate editor for Passages North and MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University. Most recently, her work can be found in The Rumpus, and Appalachian Heritage.