As girls we learn not to stand out, not to be brave, not to be bold, not to break the rules. We learn that it is shameful to “brag,” so without realizing it, we downplay our accomplishments. We carry this internalized conditioning into every area of our adult lives, including our writing lives, where it operates beyond our conscious awareness and makes it very difficult for us to promote ourselves, never mind promote ourselves shamelessly.
Shameless self-promotion. It’s an interesting concept given that female conditioning is, in the words of literary critic J. Brooks Bouson, “a prolonged immersion in shame.” As adolescents, we learn to be ashamed of our female bodies in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As Bouson puts it, “Shame about the body is a cultural inheritance for women.” Shame about our bodies erodes our sense of self and muffles our voice. Over time, shame determines how we see ourselves and what risks we will take in the world. We become shameful, not shameless.
Lisa Campion, energy healer and dean of students at the Rhys Thomas Institute of Energy Medicine, calls shame the most toxic emotion because unlike guilt, which we feel in response to something we’ve done, shame causes us to feel bad about who we are. When we doubt ourselves, how likely are we to shamelessly self-promote our writing?
Last spring at the AWP conference in Boston I attended the VIDA panel on the Count 2012. VIDA is an organization for women in the literary arts, and they’ve made it their mission to raise our awareness about the stark differences between the number of women compared to men published in literary magazines and journals. The panel consisted of magazine and journal editors, and one theme that emerged was a difference in the way women and men approach submissions after they receive a rejection. The editors had noticed a trend. It was not uncommon, they said, for a man who had received a rejection to respond by immediately submitting another piece of writing. Women, on the other hand, rarely responded with a new submission. Indeed, a cultural inheritance of shame becomes a literary inheritance of silence.
Recently my essay “Against Memory” was named a finalist for AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction 2013. Because only the winner in each category received publication, I faced an opportunity to resubmit my piece. My first choice magazine receives upwards of one thousand submissions a month and is known to take months to respond. I did not want a piece that was honored as a finalist to sit for months in a submissions pile. So I scratched my head and came up with a plan. This plan freaked me out. It made me jump up and get a cup of coffee even though I’m giving up coffee. It made me tear my thumb cuticles, even though I’m kicking that habit, too. It made me want to unwrite the essay and let both of us disappear.
My plan was to contact a writer I know—not well, mind you—who has published numerous pieces in magazine X. Maybe she could put me in touch with her editor and streamline my submission process? Finally, after putting it off for hours, I composed an email. Not because I felt like it. But because I’d promised myself that as a woman writer I would be my biggest advocate. Yes, I drank coffee. Yes, I bit my cuticles to smithereens. The voices in my head ranted, Who do you think you are? You hardly know her! She’ll think you think you’re somebody. Stop right now. You will humiliate yourself and the rest of us. I didn’t dare ask the voices in my head who the rest of us are. I just composed while they ranted and my right knee bobbed up and down. And then, way too many minutes later, my chest churning, I hovered the cursor over send.
Hello, dearest R. I got your email address from G and S, and I hope it’s okay that I’m contacting you directly. My essay “Against Memory” was named a finalist in AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction 2013. (Yes, still pinching self!) Because it is a finalist and not a winner, I am gearing up to send it out for publication. It is a brief essay, roughly 550 words, that explores the effects of silencing on memory and the healing power of speaking one’s truth. I would love the opportunity to publish this piece in X but am well aware of the overwhelming number of submissions they receive each month. Which leads me to the reason for this email. Would you consider suggesting to your contact at X that he/she take a look at “Against Memory” without its having to wait in their very long pipeline of submissions for consideration? I know this request is shamelessly self-promotional and, well, suffice it to say that these days I’m learning to wear self-promotion as an endearing accessory. But I do not want to put you on the spot or create more work for you than you already have on your plate. So, if you’re up for it, awesome. If not, I will still think of you as the awesome and utterly pure wonderful R who you are. Really, this request is coming from a deep commitment to myself to put my voice and vision and writing out into this hungry world, and to be brave and take bold risks doing it.
Finally, to appease my own damn daring and, frankly, to honor my self, I hit send. My email made that whoosh sound it makes when I send an email. Whoosh. I felt lighter. Like I’d released a small measure of internalized shame when I hit send. I felt less shame.
In her essay “Carnal Acts,” Nancy Mairs writes, “Somehow, over the years, I’ve learned how to set shame aside and do what I have to do. … And I do so, I think, by speaking…about the whole experience of being a body, specifically a female body, out loud, in a clear, level tone that drowns out the frantic whispers” of her mother and grandmothers telling her to be quiet and to keep her truth to herself. “Speaking out loud,” Mairs says, “is an antidote to shame.”
Submitting and resubmitting our work is a form of speaking out loud. Hitting send, then, is an antidote to shame. Each time we hit send, we have less shame than we had before. We become shameless.
From an energetic perspective, hitting the send button in the face of shame sends a message not only to our deepest self that we have our own back but also to the universe and to our writing muse that we mean business. That we believe in our writing. That we value our story. That we will stop at nothing to become the writer we intend to become. The universe and our writing muse take notice. They support us in our mission in ways we cannot anticipate. We become more confident in our writing. More empowered. More present. More able to take shameless command of our writing dreams.
R responded within the day, and while she supported my submitting to magazine X and offered a contact, she did not think it would make much difference. She herself still waits months for a response from X and the rejections still outweigh the acceptances.
I considered stopping there. But I’d promised myself that I would promote myself even when I felt discouraged. So on behalf of my Self I composed an email to the editor. Yes, I drank coffee. Yes, I picked my cuticles. But I hit send. Whoosh went my computer, undermining every rule I’d ever learned about what it means to be female. And even though I don’t expect to hear back from magazine X, I believe I’ve won. Because hitting the send button against such odds bolstered my courage and my confidence. From that daring act I now show up at my desk a little less shameful. Indeed, shameless. Whoosh.
To shameless self-promotion,