author – activist – faculty – mom
Michele Filgate’s Salon piece on writing psychology caught my attention with its opening line: “Self-loathing is in the writer’s blood.” The article begins with Johnathan Franzen and Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on the subject and moves on to other, lesser-known authors. While I was prepared to disagree with the entire article, I really appreciated how Filgate took on gender in comparing and contrasting self-confidence, arrogance, and entitlement between male and female writers. She quotes Elissa Schappell (“Blueprints for Building Better Girls”) as making the connection between confidence and privilege. “The only time gender doesn’t figure into evaluating a piece of art is when the artist is a man. A white man. That’s the baseline for comparison….So, why shouldn’t they have more confidence?”
While these were all pleasant surprises, I still take issue with her provocative opening line: “Self-loathing is in the writer’s blood.” As a woman of African heritage, I don’t like anyone, particularly anyone white, telling me what’s in my blood.
For us, as women of color, our decision to write comes from a decision to defy our internalized self-hatred, which would have us live in silence. From the founding of this society, women of color have been fed a steady diet of shut up. Shut up and pick the cotton. Shut up and die so we can expand from sea to shining sea. Shut up as your children die or are taken away. Shut up and scrub the floor. Shut up in forced boarding schools. Shut up in segregated neighborhoods. Shut up in the face of our sexual violence against you. Shut up on your death march to less desirable land. Shut up in prisons. Shut up on the rez. Shut up.
Perhaps for more privileged individuals such as men, white people, upperclass folks—people whose thoughts and words and writing are considered inherently valuable, people who are expected to have something profound to say—feel like they are always falling short of the mark. I’m not saying that women of color writers don’t have our struggles around self-hatred, I’m simply saying that the very fact of our writing is a direct defiance of self-loathing when our official role in the literary landscape is the maid, the sex object, the laborer working to death in the background with no speaking lines.
Also, as women writers of color, few of us have the support system to prop us up when we are deeply dysfunctional so we can pursue a profession that pays so poorly. Who else is going to clean our house, raise our kids, pay our bills, and pick up our bar tab while we create from deep within a space of misery?
Let me be clear, even if their suffering is born of privilege, I have compassion for anyone who labors as a writer under constant emotional distress. As an activist, I want to eliminate all unnecessary suffering in the world, including for men, white people, and the upper classes, even when it’s self-inflicted. And for the privileged, suffering is frequently self-inflicted. People in groups targeted for oppression suffer at the hands of those in a position to mistreat them. But self-inflicted suffering is often a by-product of the privilege itself for those in the privileged group. I would argue that the particular strain of self-loathing that Filgate has identified is a middle class white version. And while she was able to address gender and at least flag race in the piece, she didn’t even mention class because she may be operating inside a middle class narrative (even if Filgate herself is not middle class, it’s easy to operate inside a dominant narrative).
Both Franzen and Gilbert are raised in the middle class, and for Franzen, it is “in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class.” Back in 2010 Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown did a great analysis of the class politics of Gilbert’s work in an article for Bitch Magazine entitled “Eat, Pray, Spend,” where they dubbed the genre “priv-lit.”
Middle class white people are in a particularly tough spot. Great feats of upward mobility are expected of them, but they are simultaneously trained not rock the boat or make a mess. There’s an imperative to blend in. Also, middle class people are taught to keep up appearances. That is to say, if you appeared successful, tastefully stylish, and well-adjusted last month, it’s not enough. Even if you’re miserable, in debt, and falling apart inside, you have to maintain the status, day in and day out. What a terrible prescription from which to create. Writing is inherently messy and uncertain. There’s no guarantee that your next project will succeed, even if your last one did. Perhaps the terrible emotional distress that Franzen, Gilbert, and others labor under is, in part, class-based. These days, the middle class is increasingly eroded by the shifting of resources to the super-wealthy. It’s hard enough for the accountant to keep up appearances, let alone the writer.
Filgate concludes that “our self-loathing [can] have an upside,” and argues that it is what prevents “the world [from being] full of mediocre books. The ability to question ourselves makes us better writers…” I think she hits the mark closer when she reflects on her childhood: “Sometimes I miss the self-assurance I had as a child — specifically when it came to my imagination. I never thought it was stupid when I invented a game….I didn’t question myself when I wrote…stories…” She goes on to contrast that with “the doubt and the questioning that I experience constantly as an adult.” Even an analysis of her own evidence shows that self-loathing arrives via nurture not nature. The child exhibits the authentic human condition, and the adult is the product of socialization into the society. The good news is that learned behavior can be unlearned, but probably not from inside a white, middle-class perspective that normalizes it.
I have a very mixed class background, but it doesn’t include middle class conditioning. I write with a working class approach: let me get my butt in front of the computer and knock out a few hours on this book between teaching, cooking dinner, and picking up my kid from school. And I have certainly faced my share of emotional challenges as a writer. But when it comes to those, I don’t have the middle class training to suffer behind the scenes while I look successful and fabulous on the outside. I got the therapy I needed to work through it, and the whole time I allowed myself to look like the mess I was. So self-loathing has been an obstacle in my path. But in my blood? I’m not claiming that. Sorry, Fligate, I just don’t believe self-loathing is an inherent part of the human condition.