Shine Bright Like a Diamond
You are allowed to be proud of your work
This Monday in my Qigong class here in Germany my teacher was running us through some tai chi exercises, when she had us do a movement she called “the rooster.” (The name I find online is “Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg.”) It’s a complicated position, and it involves shifting the weight from one leg to another while lifting one leg and one arm, and balancing on the other foot. Our teacher told us that we should try to embody the rooster’s pride (Stolz) when we stand, then pulled back from the word.
“Maybe not pride. That word has unpleasant associations, doesn’t it? Maybe think of dignity.”
I rarely use the word gobsmacked, but reader, I was gobsmacked. I stood there with my mouth open and a slight smile, looking at her, then looking around at my fellow participants, and definitely not doing the rooster.
“Is pride bad in German?” I asked.
The other students thought about it a bit and agreed with the teacher. Pride had something negative about it. It suggested bragging. “I tell my children I’m proud of them,” said one woman, “but that’s it.”
It was one of those moments when a series of cultural differences I had felt and not always been able to express were crystallized in a single moment. In English, I knew, pride could be a sin in some contexts — pride goeth before the fall, and so on — but generally it seems like something worth cultivating. Something precious, even glorious. Pride in yourself. Pride in a job well done. Doing yourself proud. Proud as a peacock. Pride and joy. Pride parade. Proud Mary. My Romanian is not as good, especially when it comes to the subtle flavours of individual words, but in what I know of my mother tongue the word mândru, or proud, is a good word for describing a stately tree or a beautiful person. I don’t know it to be a bad thing.
Of course, I had noticed before that German society shies away from displaying national pride, for understandable reasons. And I’d noticed, too, that there is a certain discomfort around celebrating individual achievement, as though it were mildly embarrassing. A group’s achievement is a little easier to take, though even that is sometimes viewed with suspicion. But it never occurred to me that pride itself, unalloyed, uncontextualized, simple pride, might feel uncomfortable, so much so that it would even be awkward to try to embody it when doing an exercise inspired by a bird.
In many ways, the culture I now live in is not too dissimilar from the one I grew up in. Canada has its own version of the tall poppy syndrome (an expression associated with Australia and New Zealand, but one that I often heard growing up: the flower that grows too tall is chopped off). The Canadian version of worrying about excessive ambition or excellence is shaped by our domineering neighbour to the south — the assumption is that someone who becomes too ambitious will inevitably want to leave for the States.
It’s probably my curse that I did go south and spent my most formative years in the US, because I learned to appreciate pride, even a little strategic horn-tootin', and I miss it. The stereotype is that the US is individualistic and other countries are comparatively collectivist, but I see it differently. I’ve experienced situations where a group is able to take pride in the achievements of its individual members because they raise the profile of the group, expand its range, and can share their experiences with their colleagues. Certainly, being among ambitious, hard-working people inspired me to push myself harder, not because I was in direct competition with them (I usually wasn’t), but because they showed me what was possible.
As I was musing on these cultural differences, it occurred to me that suspicion of pride is also a feature of the writing world. Now, I’ve never heard anyone say outright that a writer shouldn’t be proud of their work. But the general pose among writers — a pose I have often adopted, not necessarily honestly — is to declaim how utterly horrified they are by their own creative results. “I can’t stand reading my own writing.” “It’s just a draft.” “This is probably crap, but…”
What’s more, a lot of books on writing assume that their readers are beginning writers who are inordinately pleased with their own early drafts. The advice: hate it more, learn to see the flaws the way another reader would, because only through lots and lots of editing can you reach quality.
I’m sure the people who write these books have good reasons for giving that advice. They’ve probably waded through more than their share of enthusiastic bad drafts. And every writer can benefit from putting a draft aside for a few weeks and returning to it with fresh eyes. But I also suspect the most serious writers — the ones likely to read books on craft and actually follow the advice — are already self-critical, possibly to a high degree. They are almost certainly avid and wide readers, and they can tell there is a difference between their favourite works of literature and what they can produce. I’m not sure the attitude of mandatory self-abasement is that helpful.
What I’m trying to say is that I think we could stand to be more proud of our work. Both of the work that’s good, and of doing the work at all. In fact, we need to.
There are so many setbacks in a writing career, so many outright failures, so many people with ideas about what needs to change in a draft and which parts are too challenging and which parts won’t sell, that a writer needs a certain love for her own work to keep going. I don’t think we have to be deluded about its quality or closed-minded about improvements to be proud of our writing. That critical perspective has its place. But maybe the first emotion should be marvel that we were able to create something new, not knee-jerk abjection.
Here’s a confession: I don’t hate reading my own writing. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m fighting with a draft and the words are lying dead on the page, I don’t enjoy returning to it and trying to electrify the corpse. But if it felt right when I was writing it, if I caught a bit of flow, if I managed to wrestle the darned thing into shape in the end, then it’s my baby and I love it.
I’m not just using a figure of speech. Writing feels a lot to me like making a baby. It comes from me and in another, truer way, it comes from beyond me. The result is always more wondrous than I could have managed on my own. (Also it takes way longer than I ever expect, I need a lot of help from other people, and I never forget the pain.)
It would be strange to go around saying, “I hate looking at my babies when I’m done making them,” even though, frankly, some babies can be a lot weirder looking than a 1400-word book review. These days, just as I love looking at other people’s babies simply because they have the audacity to exist, I also love to see my friends’ writing. I love reading their satirical verse about teaching or blingy queer takes on Marie de France or wry prose poems written on the bus.
I think they should be proud of making something in a world that wants only consumers. I think they should be proud of devoting their time to making art, even though it earns little praise and less money. If you’re going to do something hard — like standing on one foot with grace — you might as well take the strength that pride gives you.
Thank you for reading, and feel free to pop your poems in the comments.
It’s been a while since the last post. In my column at the Times Literary Supplement, I’ve written about the history of longing for fame, Beowulf’s critical view on endless war, and the medieval demons who prefigured AI. I also proposed Dorothy Tse’s Owlish for the paper’s Books of the Year roundup.
For the Times Higher Education I wrote about the secret to being happy in academia.
I also had a review essay of the major exhibition on Normans in Mannheim in Apollo Magazine.
My podcast with Mary Wellesley at the London Review of Books continues, with new (by subscription) episodes on the Digby Mary Magdalene Play, Troilus and Criseyde, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Middle English lyrics. We have one more episode to go in this series, but stay tuned for next year’s free-to-access series on medieval humour, also at the LRB.
I was delighted to speak to Podcetera recently about medieval literature, perfectionism, the value of the humanities, and how to deal with toxic academia.
The massive 4-volume Chaucer Encyclopedia has now been published both in print and online. I wrote the entry on the Legend of Good Women, a deliberately imperfect Chaucerian poem that I just can’t quit.
Finally, I’ll be teaching my introduction to public writing for academics again at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto in February 2024. It’s free and there is travel support available from the Mellon Foundation, but you do have to have a PhD to your name and put in an application. (You don’t need to have an academic job though.) Deadline is December 14, 2023.
And yes, I’m proud of all of it.
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