I am reading Brené Brown at the moment – rereading, to be honest – and it has got me thinking a lot about her key topics of shame, fear and the ‘hustle of worthiness’. How they apply to freelance and creative lives in general, and to my own experiences, as a working-class woman with a sometimes precarious relationship to the creative industries.
Shame is a strong and scary word. It conjures up images of yer woman from Game of Thrones, following you around with a bell and a stony-faced expression as you’re forced to parade your nakedness to the world. This seems extreme, until you consider that shame (or, if you’d like to put it more palatably, unworthiness and the fear of being unworthy) often feels just like that. It’s the constant voice in your head telling you that you don’t belong here, you aren’t good enough, you don’t deserve it. Sometimes I think a wee wifey with a bell would be easier to deal with: at least, when everyone can hear it, someone else might tell her to shut up.
I often find myself besieged by such emotions. In part, this is the natural consequence of being a working-class woman in an industry still dominated by the middle- and upper-class men. (And I’m aware that everything I say here comes from someone who is quite high up on the privilege scale – I’m white, cis, able bodied, university-educated from a time when people like me could actually afford to go to university – so will apply a thousand times more and in a thousand different ways to those from other groups).
Put me among a bunch of arty types, and I instantly feel like an intruder. Less polished, less informed, less successful: why am I even here? This imposter syndrome might have improved slightly since I moved North – I feel a lot more at home when I am not being besieged by Southern accents on all sides – but it never quite goes away. As someone a good decade older than most of my friends who do the same thing (often, more successfully), I often feel old and uncool. I’ve put on a load of weight over the last couple of years, and that makes me even more self-conscious (as well as annoyed at myself for being so: I’ve read enough feminist texts to know weight is a patriarchal issue. Why am I judging myself by standards I would never hold another woman to? So, then you pile shame at being overweight onto shame at being unhappy at being overweight onto shame at being a Bad Feminist onto being ashamed to admit any of it cos it makes you sound crazy… see how this works?)
Only the other night I was at a Big Arts Event full of Objectively Successful People, most of whom were utterly lovely. One guy, though, was a bit sniffy towards me, a bit too cool for school when we were introduced, a master of the ‘why are YOU here?’ look. Now, who knows? He might have been shy and just came across poorly. Having a bad night. Just generally a bit of a dick. Did that stop me spending most of the next day obsessively analysing my behaviour to spot the multitude of ways I’d made a tit of myself? No, no, it did not.
My own personal shame triggers – the particular measures of unworthiness I struggle against – are the fears that deep down, I’m both untalented and lazy. I don’t deserve success not only because I’m not good enough to ever achieve it, but also because I just don’t work hard enough to deserve it.
At some rational level, I know that’s not true. I even know what fuels the ‘lazy’ bit. Part of this is, I’m sure, common to people who come from a background where an arts career makes you an outlier – from having to explain to people that just because you aren’t doing what they recognise as a ‘job’, you are still actually working. Part of it comes from my own slightly eccentric creative habits. I’m not a slow and steady person: I need a lot of downtime to recharge, but then tend to work in furious bursts of productivity. But I realise that from the outside that just looks like I take a lot of naps.
I can, theoretically, actually prove I’m not lazy. I run my own business – a business which requires me often to work unsocial hours and weekends, and live to an unpredictable schedule, and which has meant I haven’t had a holiday in three years. But like many freelancers and creatives, any time I am NOT spending either working on a project or hustling for my next gig feels like skiving, and evidence that I am doomed – and deserve – to fail.
Even if I do work my arse off, who cares? I’m not good enough anyway. Who cares if I don’t finish that book, when hardly anyone will read it? Why should I bother writing that story or that feature, when I have to spend ages getting it published and I’ll get paid for it in buttons? It’s common advice not to measure your creativity by financial benchmarks (though the advice is often ‘measure how hard you work at it instead’ which just sends me back to Problem A) but of course we all do it. We might all profess admiration for any creativity, but we’re all naturally more impressed by the bucks that back that up. I’m lucky in that as a writer I’ve never been creatively blocked, but I’ve wasted vast swathes of my time in battling through that swampy hinterland of unworthiness, when simply picking up a pen seems an utterly pointless endeavour.
So how do you fight these feelings? Especially when they are, in part, as cultural as they are personal. There are whole commercial and political structures predicated on making us feel scared and unworthy – keeping us in our place by telling us we are not good enough (or thin enough, or pretty enough, or cool enough); society is aimed at making sure the privileged and the powerful hang onto their privilege and power. The world these days feels like a massive bin fire: isn’t feeling shit just a natural response?
Brown talks about shame thriving in secrecy, and she’s right. There’s been a groundswell in the arts towards transparency recently, in people talking openly about mental health and being honest about just how hard some things are. How hard it is to balance being a parent or carer with a career in the arts, what it feels like to be the only Black person in the room, how disabled people are too often ignored. Talking about how much things cost, and how they get made, and how that can be exclusionary; about how the secret codes and unspoken practices that come from a shared social or educational background conspire to keep ‘other’ people out.
Such conversations are vital – but it’s also important to realise they are not without cost. We’re all familiar with the #MeToo syndrome – now repeating itself in the abortion debate – where women (in particular) are expected to lay bare their most raw moments for the public good, where private pain is forced to become political currency. In the arts – as in many industries that have been traditionally dominated by one sector of society – if you come from a group that’s under-represented, there’s pressure not just to succeed but to be seen to do so effortlessly. There’s a very valid fear that admitting you sometimes struggle can be seen not just as a weakness on your part, but a stick to be used against anyone like you. (“See, we knew women were too much of a risk to be programmed on the main stage!” “See, we said a non-white person would find it a struggle to fit in!”. “See, they just don’t have the background they need to succeed in this industry…”).
It’s easy to say, ‘we should all be open and honest!’ but the consequences are real. As someone who has been on the sharp end of precarious finances (my summer of homelessness, anyone?), I’m more aware of that than many. Every time I admit in public that I find it tough, that I worry I’m not good enough, or I ponder if maybe I am actually lazy after all, and kidding myself about this whole freelancing thing, I risk someone reading it and thinking: ‘Well, maybe she is a bit shit. Maybe she isn’t that good. Maybe she is lazy. Let’s not hire her. Let’s not read her work. Let’s try someone else.’
So why do I do it? Maybe it’s because I am, at heart, a storyteller. I want my story to be my own, and I want to be the one to tell it. Maybe because I feel that from my position of relative privilege, I owe it to those who can’t say these things, or feel less able to articulate them. Maybe because the more those of us who can talk about it do, the more we can drown out the sound of the judgey woman with the bell walking behind us, chanting our shame to the world. And maybe, if enough of us do it, our voices will be louder than the bells.
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