Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving power away and taking it back

I had an interesting experience recently that has had me thinking about power—to whom do I give power over me and why.

I gave a talk recently in which I mentioned that I am considering a fiction book project about World War II spies in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It’s just an idea I am considering, due to a recent interest in World War II history, the Holocaust and personal accounts. It’s a heavy topic and I don’t know if I’ll pursue anything to do with it. But it’s an idea that has stuck with me for a while now, and I have learned to pay attention to ideas that stick with me.

After this talk, a gentleman approached me and asked why I was pursuing the topic of OSS spies. I explained to him that the idea came to me after seeing an exhibit about Virginia Hall, one of the most famous OSS spies, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. He proceeded to tell me about Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of “Tarzan of the Apes” and other fantastical books, and how Burroughs had tried many unsuccessful ventures before writing “Tarzan.” After the success of “Tarzan” and some of his subsequent books, the gentleman explained, Burroughs wanted to write something serious about the real world. I don’t know what this was, but the gentleman told me it failed miserably, and so Burroughs learned that he was better off sticking with writing about the worlds in his own mind. He closed by saying I should take a lesson from this.

I was taken aback by this exchange. I’m sure this man did not intend to be insulting, but he was, in fact, telling me I shouldn’t bother to try writing about something like the OSS. This really stuck in my craw. Who was he, a total stranger who knew nothing about me, to say that I can’t handle such a topic? And was the underlying message that I was silly and stupid, or just silly to think I could take on such a subject? I was speechless and just let the man walk away.

This conversation was the only blip in a perfect day of talking with people who loved books and cared about writers. I left the event feeling quite wonderful, except for this one conversation. It kept coming back to me, making me feel angry and a little bad about myself—for not saying something back. Worse yet, I started to doubt my own abilities. How horrible is that, to doubt your abilities and lose your confidence based on the comments of a total stranger?

The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to realize that I gave this stranger power over me. I let him erode my confidence. I let him make me doubt my abilities. I gave his opinion, his words, value. That is my doing, not his. And in truth, he probably meant to be helpful, not hurtful.

It’s so easy to let other people’s words and opinions shape how we feel about ourselves. But I believe that only I can shape how I feel about myself. Only I can make me feel bad about myself. Only I can lose my self confidence. Only I can doubt my abilities. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

And so, I have decided not to give that stranger that power. I am still reading books about the OSS and look forward to seeing what comes of it. Maybe something great will come of it, and maybe not. But I would rather be open to the possibility than defeat myself before I even begin.

Your Creative Kick in the Butt: Think about who has power over how you feel about yourself. Then do the hard part and think about why you have given them that power. Because you have given it to them.


Lynn Price said...

Really good thoughts, Judy. I think, as writers, we tend to bruise easily when someone doesn't jump on board with our ideas. Instead, we buy into their notion that we aren't strong enough writers to pull it off. In all truth, they may be right, but isn't that for us to determine through out own creative processes? Glad you kicked butt!

Judy said...

You're exactly right, Lynn. It is for us to decide. And that's what I finally realized. It actually made me angry to think that I was allowing a total stranger dictate how I felt about an idea. It's just an idea, after all. It illustrated how fragile the creative process is, and also that, as writers, we can protect our own creative process.