Word of the year

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I read a lot of books in January. It was a meditative month, and I loved it. Frankly, I could spend my entire life doing nothing more than reading and writing, with brief breaks to run and eat, and then back to the thinking, please.

It’s a good thing we have all these kids, I said to Kevin the other night, or I’d be a hermit. I have these ascetic traits that are very hard to shake.

I met with my word-of-the-year friends on Monday evening. I’ve already written about last year’s word: Stretch. I spent most of January quietly testing out the world Welcome. But just before meeting with my friends, I had a last-minute change of heart (this happens every year), and chose instead Success.

I chose this word because it terrifies me. It terrifies me and I believe that it shouldn’t: and I like a challenge. I want to know what it feels like to claim all of the positive aspects of this word while overcoming the negative ones. Since selling Girl Runner this past fall, I’ve found myself cowering from the idea of being successful. I continually frame that good fortune in deliberately distancing terms: it was luck, it was chance, it was a lightning strike, it was like winning the lottery. In other words, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.

You can’t see them, but I’ve started and erased about ten sentences here.

The sentences all have to do with how maybe, maybe I might have had a little something to do with my book’s good fortune. See, I can’t even let myself express this idea out loud. It sounds like bragging, I guess. Caveats flow from me. And I have been fortunate, there is no doubt about it. And lucky. But was it really entirely chance? Was it anything like buying a lottery ticket? Or maybe, maybe does spending half of my life in single-minded pursuit of becoming a good writer account for at least a fraction of this luck and chance?

If I were a man, would I be having this conversation with myself? I genuinely wonder.

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And that is why I landed on the word Success. I feel compelled to tuck Welcome into my back pocket for moments when I need a soft place to land, a comforting lens through which to view the decisions I will be making this year. But I know deep inside that it’s Success I need to wrestle with, Success that challenges me, and Success that I hope to step inside and claim.

Two quotations, both attributed to Nelson Mandela, a successful leader if there ever was one, and someone who did not rest on past successes. His humility radiated power.

“There is no passion to be found in playing small–in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

What am I doing, by distancing myself from the challenges and possibilities inherent in taking risks, in claiming responsibility both for my failures and successes? What rooms in my life am I walling off, out of fear and superstition and what is probably, in truth, a false humility?

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“I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Success isn’t an endpoint, in other words. A moment of achievement is a moment that should be celebrated, yes. But it’s no place to pack it in. Pause, reflect, breathe, and gather strength in order to carry on with one’s work. The freedom granted me by earning a living from my writing (at least for the next few years), comes with the responsibility to use that freedom well. Not to shrivel up. Not to crumble under the weight of expectation (my own, I mean). Instead, to work with passion, to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and to write and teach with the humble intention of doing good rather than harm.

Expectations, meet day
Girl Before Runner

14 Comments

  1. Carrie, as a man, I can say that I have had (and continue to have) all the conversations you describe. I recommend another quote, often ascribed to Mandela but actually written by Marianne Williamson that begins “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…”

    My word for the year is “bound” with all its many and diverse meanings.

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    • I thought Success terrified me. Bound is way scarier. Will you be blogging about the word? In practical terms, how do you reflect on it throughout the year?

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  2. Oh my, Impostor Syndrome is so very universal. I don’t believe for a second that it afflicts women more than men.

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    • I’m not convinced this is Imposter Syndrome, Craig. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think this is something rather different. It’s not that I doubt my own abilities or feel like I’m not really a writer, or that I’ve somehow fooled everyone. I have a couple of different anxieties going on: one is that even though I believe myself to be a good writer and a hard worker, what I make in the future may not be what anyone wants to read — there’s a whim of the markets thing that is completely out of my control (that’s the luck and chance bit that there’s no escaping, no matter how I frame it). What I also feel (kind of a core, irrational feeling) is that there is something harmful or bad about success itself, especially financial success — that it will rot out all that’s creative in me. I wonder whether this might be my Mennonite background showing, a bit. But neither of these are gendered things at all, so you’re probably right about that.

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  3. Okay, two men telling me that they feel this way too! Sounds universal. This idea started bubbling, for me, after a friend, who edited a collection of essays, The M Word (which includes one of mine), noted that without exception her contributors, who were all women, apologized for their essays. Is it possible that women vocalize their fears more readily, which causes us to appear weaker, even if we’re all actually feeling the same way? Maybe more men are socialized not to mention that they’re quaking in their boots? What do you guys think?

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  4. Carrie, you have a good point about women being more able to express insecurities, despite evidence to the contrary. I have always believed that I am an outlier in my gender. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a self-deprecating streak a mile wide. I do notice (and this is significant) that people find this trait more annoying in a man. Sorry, a kilometre wide.

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    • It’s part of the problem of breaking the world down into male/female, and ascribing specific traits to one gender or the other. As a competitive personality, I noticed from a pretty early age that people found that, as you say, more annoying in a girl/woman. Speaking as a woman, I feel it’s expected of me that I ‘fess up to the potential flaws in whatever it is I’m offering — maybe as a way of anticipating or deterring criticism. It’s almost like a social tic. Here’s a pie, I’m sorry, the crust didn’t come out quite like it usually does, I hope you like it anyway! Rather than, here is a pie, it is pure awesomeness and you will love it!

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    • Actually, what I’d like to get to is: Here is a pie.

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  5. I’m very interested in “success” as your word of the year. I have questions, of course, as I always do! The first, obvious one, is what does success mean to you? How do you measure success? Also, and this is more of a thought than a question, is that success is a noun, not a verb. It’s not something you can actively do. I hope you blog a bit more about it as the year goes on.

    My word of the year is “strength”–something I need to work towards in my body, mind, work and relationships. Find it, create it, use it.

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    • Yes, it is a noun, and that is a factor that I considered. (Strength is too, right?) So maybe I could put it much like you’ve put it: success is something I want to harness in my work, mind, and relationships. (I deliberately leave the body out; as long as I’m alive, I’ll consider my body a roaring success.)

      Success is not a positive word in my mind. I would like to change that. Maybe my goal for the year is as simple as that. Some things I will be thinking about: how do I define success? I hope not to spend the year measuring my success in external values and judgements. I hope to frame my definition of success around being imaginatively ambitious, being able to think beyond myself, and working and acting from a place that is self-assured and confident. Not falsely or arrogantly self-assured, but grounded, solid, strong.

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    • Crap. Google ate my response. Let me try this again:

      I like what you’ve written here. I’ve had conversations about what success means and I find that I’m drawn to the tangible– money, external validation–while my husband measures success on a personal level–how one is in the world, how one interacts with people. I like his version of it better than my own, but I have a hard time shaking mine.

      And yes, strength isn’t a verb, and consequently I’m having a harder time with it. It feels like a goal instead of a way of being in the world. I guess I have twelve (now eleven!) to figure it out.

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    • Rarely have I chosen a verb for my word of the year. Some of the most memorable and useful to me were meditative words rather than doing words: spirit and heart come to mind immediately. Rather than trying to do your word, maybe you could use it as a lens to look through.

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  6. Yes, your time spent working at becoming a good writer very likely has something to do with your success at writing. Maybe sometimes it feels as though it was mostly chance because, maybe, you haven’t been as single-minded in its pursuit as you say. Maybe you’ve also devoted a lot of time to becoming a “well-rounded” person – doing lots of things other than writing; opening other doors. And so, as a result, maybe your success at writing feels like luck. Maybe it is, in part. But maybe your other pursuits have contributed substantially to your skill at writing. Or maybe not – it’s just a thought. You tell me.

    And yes, if you were a man you might be having that same conversation with yourself.

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    • All the men who have chimed in feel the same. It’s unanimous among my blog readers!

      I’m thinking about your other observation, Karl. I remember that I used to feel nervous about having “too much” writing time, back when I was especially sleep-deprived and immersed in the care of small children, so maybe you’re on to something. It certainly wasn’t the only thing I devoted myself (or do now). But now all I can think is: what I wouldn’t do for more writing time! I no longer have the sense (or fear) that I wouldn’t be able to fill that time well.

      Reply

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