Enough is Enough! (or is it?)

My task today is to respond to Michelle’s lovely and wise Monday post, in which she reflected on celebrating the many small victories along the path to publication. She evoked the concept of dayenu–meaning “that would be enough”–as a sort of mantra to acknowledge each moment of joy along the way.

I love this concept, and this attitude. I love the idea of reflecting on a draft or a round of revisions and gratefully saying to myself, “that would be enough.” I love the idea of smiling serenely and feeling the contentment of a job well done right down to the core of my being.

"What's that you say Mr. Darcy? You're violently in love with me? Dayenu!"

I also love the idea of meeting Mr. Darcy at a ball, having him fall madly in love with me, and professing the violence of his emotion for me right there in the Collins’ parlor. To be perfectly honest, the likelihood of either of these dreams coming true is about equal.

The thing is, the idea that my accomplishments are enough has never been something I could believe, at least not since grade school. Long before entering the so-called formative years of puberty, I had learned that most things about me were not enough, or at least not enough to earn me respect or affection from my peers. My grade school years were marred by fat thighs, cat-eye glasses, orthopedic shoes, and a wardrobe with way too much polyester double-knit. My peers responded with an understandable dose of horror. And while I did well enough in school, teachers let me know I was neither as smart nor as good as my sister, who they had adored the year before. By the time I entered the crushing years of puberty, I was already dragging an atrophied ego. My efforts to please, impress, flirt, or simply be liked, had been widely declared to be “not quite enough.”

Then I hit puberty, and the awkward years. If you feel the need for an audible groan, go right ahead. This is not one of those ugly-duckling-turns-into-a-swan stories. Nor is it the Brady Bunch episode where Marsha takes off Shy Girl’s glasses and she is suddenly transformed into the prom queen. I’ll spare you the gory details–suffice it to say I remained alarmingly unattractive, and for those of you thinking “beauty is only skin deep,” tell that to the scars on my psyche.  And yes, as long as we’re talking in clichés, looks aren’t everything, but that overachieving blaze-of-glory sister was still blazing along a grade ahead of Mediocrity Me.

La la la... what a pretty strip of green through the desert. But what does it have to do with me? La la la...

I can’t say that years of never being quite good enough did much for my self esteem, and what it did do was generally painful. But while my self esteem withered to a phantom limb, my sense of denial grew until it wasn’t just a river in Egypt, but something much, much bigger.  What years of being told I wasn’t good enough did for me was to make me strive to prove the world wrong.

This, my friends, is my maddening double edged sword of achievement. I am driven to succeed by the need to prove that I AM GOOD ENOUGH, because sometime before the age of ten, a grain of NOT GOOD ENOUGH got wedged so deeply into my soul that it will not come out. My accomplishments are the pearl that I have formed around that grain as protection, but the grain is still there.

The reason I have a PhD in my chosen field, the reason I have an agent, the reason I have a novel under contract, is because I have never been able to say “Dayenu.” Is this healthy? Were those achievements equal to the pains and humiliations of my youth? I don’t know, although I know I am not alone. CEOs, sports superstars, artists and literary figures before me have been driven by insecurity. I am in good, if somewhat pathetic, company.

Still, Michelle’s post was so beautiful. I like the idea of someday saying Dayenu. Even more, I like the idea of knowing what that feels like to say it and believe it. And maybe some day I will. Maybe I will be able to  put my insecurities to rest once and for all, embrace and celebrate my talents, and step into the light as someone who can say

That would be enough. Dayenu.

But there are still things I need to achieve first. For one thing, my editor has some amazing best-selling writers on her list, and frankly, that’s seriously scary. I’ve got to keep striving for more if I’m going to hang out in that crowd.

So for today I’ll say, “it’s not quite enough, but it’s a great start,” and I will consider that a big step forward from the crushed little girl I once was.

As for “Dayenu,” I’m saving that for the day Mr. Darcy proposes.

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22 Comments

Filed under rejection and success

22 responses to “Enough is Enough! (or is it?)

  1. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Jeannie, your classmates lost out on getting to know smart, funny you. Their loss.

    I suspect that your pain and your humor and your honesty will come out in your novel just as it’s done in this post, and you will reach children who are still working on turning their grains of sand into pearls. And when you hear from them via letters and email, perhaps that’s when you’ll have your dayenu moment.

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  2. Good point, Natalie. That would be enough.

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  3. Someone once said something along the lines that an unhappy childhood is a real asset to a writing career. I have begun to wonder lately whether my ability to bear grudges for decades and conjure up the emotions that greeted the creation of that grudge are one of my curses as a human being but one of my gifts as a writer.

    I think that dayenu is something for things in the past that you look back on rather than the future that you’re striving to create. You’re on the other side of that golden door of publishing. You have a manuscript under contract. Weren’t there days in the past when you thought to yourself that it would be enough if you only had a book published? So I find myself in a spot like Michelle where I can be happy and content with what I’ve achieved. Sure, it still stings when I think of the woman who described my mystery SUSPECT as cheesy. I try to beat that down with the Kirkus Review that described it as “intriguing, suspenseful fun.”

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    • It’s in the looking back that I fall into the pit of despair of “not good enough.” When I’m looking forward, yes, I am motivated by feeling like when I achieve some goal or other, I will have arrived. But when I accomplish that goal, I usually feel disappointed, and in looking back on it, I usually feel that it wasn’t enough, or that the way I achieved it was somehow sub-standard. For example, my doctorate was something I had strived for for years, but in the end I felt embarrassed by it. My dissertation was way short of what it should have been, I felt like my committee was somewhat disappointed by my work, etc. So what should have felt like an achievement felt in that moment (and ever since) more like a failure.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful. I do feel happiness and excitement at having sold a novel. For about 15 minutes I felt like it was enough. Then I started to realize what a horrible thing I had done, because this wasn’t my best novel, and it will be my debut, and everyone is going to see how mediocre I really am, and I will never get another contract… I know, I need therapy!

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  4. L.B. Schulman

    Hi Jeannie. I never thought of a motivation for success being the need to prove oneself as worthy, but it really makes sense. I wonder how many writers out there have injured middle-school (and earlier) selves that we are also attempting to heal through our character’s exoeriences and through our relentless pursuit for success. This was a great post and gave me a lot to think about. But you know, now you are more than good enough; we all just see the pearl.

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    • I once saw an interview on Charlie Rose (I’ve never been able to remember who it was to find his book), but the researcher/author was talking about the trend in eduction to be affirming and use positive reinforcement instead of negative, and he was arguing that some of the most creative, productive people in history have been driven by their overblown insecurities. In particular, he focused on three case studies, two of which were Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Jefferson. He made the argument that by making kids always feel good about themselves we were removing the motivations that make them reach for more. We are raising a whole generation that will be satisfied with mediocrity.

      That’s when I realized this about myself. I was horrified by his argument, at the same time that i saw his point. I remember thinking, which would I rather be–less motivated to succeed, or happy. Tough choice.

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  5. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Oh, Jeannie. This made me so sad. But, I understand it.

    I loved hearing Katherine Paterson say once, “I wish I could sit down with my nine year old self and say, ‘Don’t worry, Honey. You’re going to make a mint off of all this misery.'” Truthfully, I’d love the financial success, but knowing that my book helps some kids would really be Dayenu for me.

    You may have been driven by this “not enough” that sat in your gut and propelled you forward, Jeannie, but you succeed in all of these pretty out-of-ordinary things (PH.D, agent, contract, future keynote speaker engagements–because you are *so good* at communicating) because of who you are. People don’t achive these things simply because they want to. But, you, M’dear. You did it all with intelligence, grit, and one hell of a sense of humor. Quite a talented lady! You are a gift to this blog, a gift to EMLA, and you will be a gift to all of the children that will love your book, carrying it around in the their backpacks all dog-eared and well-read.

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  6. I also had “cat-eye glasses, orthopedic shoes,” and a wardrobe only a mother could love (because she sewed every single thing in it). It took many years to get past that. I have absolutely no idea how long it’s going to take to get past the need to have every written word and phrase perfect… and the fear that they never will be.

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  7. Donna–did we have the same mother??? That is the underlying reason behind all my polyester double-knit clothing as well.

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  8. Jeannie, I think you look really good as a swan! And well said, by the way. Better than good enough. As usual.

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  9. It is always refreshing when I find someone that has the courage to bleed on the page. So raw and so inspiring. Glad to have found your blog. BTW Congratulations on your achievements. It’s amazing how hard we are on our selves. Thanks for the new word…Dayenu…”it would be enough”. There comes a time when you have to let go and say this is good enough, mainly so you can get on to the next challenge.

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  10. J. Anderson Coats

    Oh man. This is me. My scholar-athlete older brother gladhanded his cheerful, friendly way through school and left me – opinionated, forthright, prickly, clad in patched sweatpants and saddled with a ridiculous bowl-cut well into gradeschool – to struggle in his meteoric wake. He had tons of friends. Everyone liked him. Me? I was just not able to play that game.

    I was told to “get along.” Subtext: Shut your mouth and nod your agreement with the Pretty Girls. Shut your mouth and smile at the Rude Boys, and when they tease you, it means they like you. I couldn’t, though. I can be a lot of things, but phony ain’t one of them.

    I was shanghaied into activities my brother excelled at – soccer, skiing, after-school clubs – but because they weren’t for me, I sucked at them and took those near-constant failures to heart. The one thing I did better than him was write. That was where I knew I could make my bones, so I scribbled furiously at every spare moment almost completely under the radar of my well-meaning but clueless parents.

    Other people were better at writing than me, though. And still are. That one took a long time to accept, and I work daily at not letting that simple knowledge stop me from putting words on the page.

    I’ve been chasing dayenu all my life. I would like nothing better than to rest on my laurels and feel good that I got somewhere. But I can’t shut up that tiny voice in my ear that keeps whispering, “Why aren’t you better?”

    I don’t want Mr. Darcy, though. He’s all yours.

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    • You hear that ladies? J has official granted Mr. Darcy to ME.

      I always find some comfort in reading about other totally amazing and accomplished people who say this. It makes me feel a little better. It doesn’t necessarily convince me that I’m good enough, but I can say, “look at that person and how everyone says she’s brilliant, funny, charming, etc. Maybe they see me that way too.” Which ironically enough, doesn’t make me believe I am that way, but only that I am a good liar. Which then, makes me feel a little worse about myself, lying to all my friends like that.

      I can’t blame my parents (except for the clothes and shoes.) They were really good about trying not to compare me to my older siblings and letting me be myself. It was really more the teachers at school that never got the hint, and some that actually said “why can’t you be as smart/talented/well behaved/etc. as your sister?” Including a history teacher who told me I’d never make it in the social sciences.

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  11. I like the more basset hound droopy MacFaydden as Darcy. Is that wrong?
    I think the proving something and focusing on the negative comes so easily, which is why I need a push to appreciate the good when it comes along. Great post.

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    • Yes, Michelle, that is very wrong.

      I didn’t mean to undercut your positive post with a negative one. I was more reflecting on how hard it is to say, and mean. I am sooo impressed that you can focus on the happy and put away the nasty little voices that say something else. Keep pushing! You (AND your book) are worthy of the happiness!

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  12. Whoa, powerful stuff. I get it, totally get it. From earning a PhD to setting my sights on a publishing career–all to prove something to that tortured teenager who lives in my soul. At least I’ve moved on from Mr. Darcy though, thanks to Johnny Depp and Sawyer from LOST.

    Thanks for putting out such a personal and moving post.

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    • What do you mean, “At least” you’ve moved on? Are you implying that the Mr. Darcy part of all this is the pathetic part? Because I was thinking that was the healthy part. And are you implying that a desire for Mr. Darcy means I can’t also desire Johnny Depp? I don’t think so. I have just two words for you on that score Jeanne Ryan: Chocolat. Dayenu!

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