Kindness, Bluntness, Attractiveness

For those of you keeping track, my novel is done. It has gone through two rounds of edits, and is now with beta-readers while I focus on short-form writing and, you know, work and life. I suspect I will be ready to query in early March.

Today I wanted to write about something not exactly within the scope of an academic blog, but nonetheless an important issue that affects most of us one way or another, and especially those among us who are women. There will be some discussion of sex and relationships, so if you want to stop reading, now would be a good time.

***

Let me start with a couple of anecdotes.

There was a guy I dated for a couple of years during the transition from high school to college. When I started dating him, he had beautiful shoulder-length curly hair. At some point, he cut it off to maybe a couple of inches in length. I did not care for this change. I never told him I disliked it, though. I remember beating myself up for catching myself not liking how he looked and for questioning my attraction to him. However, within a few weeks I simply got used to it. I certainly didn’t stop having sex with him over the stupid haircut; it turned out that the haircut was completely irrelevant for our connection. I never discussed this tiny bit of internal turmoil with him because, even at age 18, I knew nothing good would come of it; all it would do was hurt his feelings and damage our relationship.

In another anecdote, my friend from graduate school started dating this girl. He was getting serious about her and thinking marriage and family. He shared that he didn’t think he could be a dad because he couldn’t envision that he would deny himself buying a new CD (yes, this was 20 years ago) in order to buy the kid new shoes. He couldn’t envision putting the needs of a kid before his own. I already had a child at this time and, in a bout of uncharacteristic wisdom, I told him that he was imagining some random kid demanding CD money for shoes, whereas in reality the kid would be his, and the kid would be the person he would love more than anyone or anything in the world, so using CD money for shoes would not feel like a sacrifice at all; it would be something he would feel happy to do. (The friend went on to marry this girl and have two kids with her, and by all accounts they’re all quite happy. He’s a great dad and his children do not go around barefoot.)

Which brings us to why I am presenting these two seemingly disconnected anecdotes. Because they speak to the importance of kindness and the power of really loving someone.

A few weeks ago, this article made a splash on Twitter (also see below). Before you read it, I want to emphasize that Autostraddle is a site for lesbians and queer women, so even though the article reads like it was written by a dude, it most likely wasn’t.

Anyway, in the comments on Twitter and on the Autostraddle site, people have been polarized in response to the article. To summarize, Partner A gained weight. Is it OK for Partner B to just tell Partner A they’re not attracted to them anymore (especially if asked point blank) or should Partner B shut up and deal with their decreasing feelings of attraction in some unspecified but presumably shame-free and socially approved way?

I am of the mind that if it really bothers you that much that your partner has gained weight that you won’t go near them, I don’t think you love them very much and you likely never did, and it’s fine, it really is, you can’t control if you’re attracted to someone or not, and you can’t control if you love someone or not, but do everyone a favor and leave your partner alone, and please don’t go all scorched earth where you obliterate their self-esteem with your bluntness on the way out.

My husband and I have been married for over 20 years. We don’t look like we did when we first got married. However, I don’t know how he would have to look for me to not want to get into his pants. Maybe if he grew horns or a tail? Nah — those might actually be added turn-ons! 🙂 Seriously. I don’t know if this is universal, but I think it is: If you really love someone, you will want to be close to them and their body no matter what. Hey, even the legendary Ozzy Osbourne knew this to be true: “I love my wife whether she’s fat, thin, fucking square, round, fucking oblong shape.”

That’s different from looking at headless bodies and ranking them on attractiveness. Yes, some headless bodies belonging to anonymous people are more attractive than others, but that stops being important when you are really close to someone, because then their body is simply part of them. And what’s with people coolly assessing their partners from multiple yards away? People having sex get really really really close to each other, like you’ll have a square foot or two of skin before your (often closed) eyes, but, most importantly, sex is a whole-body experience, with the touch, taste, smell, and sound being at least as important as sight, and the actual connection with your partner being far more important than any particular sensory input. (I know someone will say here “But men are visual!” Yes; women are, too. Men and women are not different species; they have the same five senses and they both have emotions, FFS.)

Unfortunately, the whole “Don’t you dare get fat” warning is one that girls start receiving from a very young age. I have dieted my whole life, and it brought me nothing but lowered metabolism. For example, here is a picture of me, age 21, at a costume party (yes, I am holding a tail).

Cropped

I had a BMI of about 22, and was strong and toned because I played volleyball. Yet, there were always guys around who would come to tell me I’d look great if only I lost 10-20 lbs.  This “You’d look great if only” negging bullshit started when I was an early teen and would only stop if I bit people’s heads off for it. Most girls have a similar story, with a whole life of feeling like shit, which I’d say is the whole point — to waste our time, make us doubt ourselves, and make us settle for things and jobs and people far below what we deserve. I look at these pictures now and want to slap myself silly, make myself see how objectively great I looked, instead of allowing assholes to erode my confidence.

My beloved childhood BFF (next to me in that pic; sadly, she died of a heart condition in her early 30s) lamented her then boyfriend, who would complain about her face when she had an acne outbreak. She said, “How is he going to act around me if we have kids and I gain weight?” She eventually broke up with him, and I think she was right to for many reasons, this being an important one.

I am going to posit that if you really love your partner, changes in their appearance won’t bother you. You might notice them, but they won’t fundamentally change how you feel about the partner. It might bother you that the changes bother them, and you would likely want to be supportive in however they choose to deal with their own feelings about the changes, but the connection between you two, if it is real and strong, will not weaken, and might, in fact, strengthen in the face of challenges and added vulnerability, leading to deeper intimacy.

If your partner’s changes in body shape make you not want to get close to them anymore, you should probably do both yourself and them a favor and leave. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we act. So don’t fucking destroy their confidence by spelling out for them in no uncertain terms that you’re not attracted to them anymore. In addition to being able to see themselves in a mirror, I guarantee they already feel your dwindling attraction, so there’s no need to be cruel and remove all doubt. Trust me, there is no coming back from those words. Not everything needs to be said out loud, FFS, and if you pretend you don’t know that, if you pretend blatant honesty at all times is the only way, you are needlessly very cruel, and you are also very lucky that you haven’t had someone as unkind as yourself serving you a taste of your own medicine. Like so:

Stroke

There’s a guy I dated through most of college and a couple of years post, which included the time the above picture of me was taken. His family, especially his sister, would often make jokes about the size of my ass, and he did nothing to defend me. I met him last over a decade ago here in the US. He called me fat and told me I should consider moving my family to a more walkable city. To that, I did not say anything about his thinning hair, his receding hairline, the shape or color of his teeth, or how disappointing it was that his style, jokes, and interests hadn’t changed at all.

Blogger MIA and Question for Readers

Sorry I’ve been MIA; I’ve been trying to finish the edits on the novel. Yes. The draft is done. Edit round one is done. It’s still a trashfire, but it’s now a trashfire with a complete narrative arc and, if I do say so myself, nuggets of not-entirely-awful writing. The roller coaster of emotions spanning from “This book is the most despicable heap of garbage ever to be vomited on the electronic page” to “This book is so amazing, it will single-handedly spread good cheer across the globe and end poverty and violence forever” is not for the faint of heart. But the heap-of-garbage emotions are present 90% of the time, and that, as I hear, is par for the course.

Anyhow.

I will be back in about a week with more tales of academic woe. We will have eye rollers (anyone sitting in a committee meeting), high rollers (faculty with more grant money than they can effectively manage), steam rollers (faculty and administrator bullies), weed rollers (students with access to narcotics), and holy rollers (devout followers of every new teaching fad).

Finally, does anyone have thoughts about a newsletter? There are a bunch of people subscribed to the blog, so they already receive notifications whenever I post, but would there be interest in a real newsletter, sent perhaps monthly or so?

OK, that’s it for the moment. And now, Twitter levity!

2022 in Rearview Mirror, 2023 in Rose-Colored Glasses

Happy 2023 to all blog readers! May 2023 bring you good health and contentment, and, if you’re in academia, also untold grant riches, high-profile publications, and a teaching schedule that makes you miss the most pointless meetings.

This has been my 2022:

Professional:

  • Wrote 7,834 grants. Several were funded and lean times were avoided
  • Taught twice as many courses as I usually do, to great fame and success, but mostly great exhaustion. Also great joy due to interacting with undergrads, and, yes, great teaching evaluations
  • Moved labs. Paid movers out of pocket because department was not helpful and I refused to have graduate students throw  out their backs by moving heavy furniture
  • Started several new research projects. Interviewed a bunch of new students, some of whom will hopefully come here and on whom I plan to spend the aforementioned grant money
  • Did some nice science. Papers forthcoming

Personal:

  • Eldest graduated college and started grad school! It feels like it happened ages ago, but it was only this May
  • Smurf started middle school
  • I read like a literary speed demon (finished roughly 150 books this year, about 120 on Kindle)
  • Wrote and published some short fiction (ten acceptances, to be precise, out of 88 submissions, which is about the same as last year, but not as many as I did in the years past). I was busy with teaching and writing ALL TEH GRANTZ and, honestly, a bit bummed out about all the funding precariousness. Also, it’s been five years of writing short fiction, so it’s a little less enticing than it used to be. I am itching for a different challenge, not in lieu, but in addition to short fiction—
  • Which is why I’ve started and am about to finish the first draft of a novel

In the coming year, I plan to:

  • Write ALL TEH PAPERZ
  • Finish the novel, edit, have it beta-read (already scheduled), edit more, and then start the painful job of trying to get it traditionally published (both through agents and through direct submissions to publishers that allow it). If the novel were to get picked up for publication, I would consider 2023 a smashing success
  • I should put out Academaze II. I’ve got a great cover already commissioned and finished. I could and should probably do that in the spring, low-key, and save the summer to start drafting a second novel
  • I’ve been thinking about putting out a short-fiction collection. I have a unifying theme and certainly plenty of stories to choose from. Collections don’t sell very well, so I am a little ho-hum about doing it. Maybe between novels

How’s your year been, blogosphere? Highlights from 2022? Plans for 2023? 

Back to Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback can be tricky. Tact is paramount, and even the most salient point will fall on deaf ears if not delivered with respect and kindness. (See here and here.) However, the recipient must be genuinely open to feedback, otherwise the whole exercise is moot. 

I know a few short-fiction writers who ask for critique, but no matter how on point or how tactfully delivered the feedback may be, these authors end up incorporating none of it (and, in a few cases, end up aggrieved that there was any feedback to begin with). Of course, no one is expected to agree with every comment or adopt every suggestion, but feedback from seasoned writers usually illuminates legitimate issues that deserve some reflection. 

Recently, a similar thing happened with a junior faculty member in the context of technical writing. This was not the first such instance, either. This junior faculty member will ask for feedback on their writing, and not just from me, and then basically ignore all of it. In the most recent review cycle, I sent  only broad-strokes feedback but no sentence-level feedback because I’ve had the experience of it being ignored and I don’t have time to waste, but another colleague did provide detailed inline comments, and did a pretty good job of it, too. The junior faculty member ended up not incorporating a single suggestion, even the comments that were no brainers, such as suggestions regarding cumbersome sentences that desperately needed restructuring. Let’s not even talk about hyphenation or punctuation, something that most people are generally worse at than they think they are, but too few strive to improve (The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is my sacred text).

I mean, why even ask for feedback if you don’t want to reflect upon what you’ve written? Not all feedback is equally valid, but assuming you’re asking people whom you trust, who get what you are trying to do, and who have experience in your genre (be it fiction or technical prose), why wouldn’t you consider their feedback seriously? 

Conversely, if you feel your work is beyond reproach, why do you waste people’s time? Do you expect they will come back and say, “This is perfection. No notes”? Is it some weird pull between thinking you ought to get feedback and also believing you are above feedback? I can sympathize with this sentiment, truly, but I usually have the presence of mind (or perhaps humility) to recognize when someone has pointed out a real issue. The goal should be to make the manuscript the best it can be. Having a healthy dose of ego is good, as it helps you stand your ground in the face of low-quality, bad-faith, or misguided feedback. But the ego shouldn’t be so large that it obscures avenues for real improvement simply because someone else has pointed them out. 

What say you, blogosphere? How’s your experience with giving/receiving feedback been? 

Essays on Professional Jealousy in Intimate Relationships

This essay hits hard. 

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/dec/05/my-boyfriend-a-writer-broke-up-with-me-because-im-a-writer

And there’s this one, that turns darker still: 

https://longreads.com/2020/01/15/whatever-happened-to-______/

 

If you want to follow the discussion on Twitter, here are a couple of threads.

 

 

Le-le-le-le-vi-teh-heh-hey

Last day of November! I’ve been kinda dying from work the last few weeks, so have missed a few days of blogging, but I will makes sure to keep posting regularly until all the questions from the questions post are answered, and then hopefully more!

For now, some levity, and a more substantive post to follow soon:

Transdisciplinary Projects

Maya asked: 
English/WGS prof here and I regularly work with STEM and Healthcare colleagues on transdisciplinary projects like medical humanities. What do you think humanities and STEM people need to know about each other to work better together?

This is a great question, but unfortunately it’s not one I am particularly well-qualified to answer as I haven’t had collaborative projects involving colleagues from the humanities (or from the biomedical fields, for that matter). However, I trust that some of our readers have!

Wise and worldly readers, please share your thoughts and experiences with Maya!

What People Need

I had a post with random Twitter levity planned, but then I saw this tweet:

By the way, it isn’t really a Robin Williams quote, even though he did say the words (see here).

But it connected with several articles and blog posts and some acquaintance-related developments, all of which coalesced to a single theme. People don’t pay attention to other people. People take other people for granted, especially those whom they supposedly care about. Communication doesn’t mean you assume things are fine (read: live in denial) until someone submits a notarized written complaint. If you wait for people to be blunt with you, it’s probably too late. Communication  implies you are aware of the person you care about, that you can sense their distress, their reluctance, their pain. You pay attention to subtle cues.

A person I know IRL was very vocal about the excellent communication in their relationship. Yet, I could name several instances where they appeared totally clueless about how their actions were likely affecting their significant other. I tried to gently hint that they might’ve acted carelessly; as expected, they didn’t appreciate this input, and insisted that their parent would’ve said something. Then they got broken up with, without ever having been given much beyond empty platitudes as the reason. So much for excellent communication.

Many people are finely attuned to the needs of their children. Why can’t they extend the same courtesy to the adults in their lives?

I often get back to this poignant piece of nonfiction, “The Crane Wife” in The Paris Review. It reminds us it’s not that hard to know what other people need.

Fictional Impostor

A few days ago, reader DS asked over email:

What’s your perspective, now, on imposter syndrome?

The timing is interesting, because I recently got shortlisted for a short-fiction award (I can now officially say I am this-award-nominated author). I looked at all the other people on the list, many of whom are way more accomplished than me (Bram Stoker awardees and such), and I felt — you guessed it — a surge of conviction that I had no business being on that list, and that someone would figure it out and cross me off. In other words, impostor syndrome. I started rationalizing my appearance on this list by things that have nothing to do with the quality of the story chosen. It turns out, one can feel like an impostor in any endeavor, and instead of knitting or doing something else that’s noncompetitive, I chose writing and publishing fiction, and now I have yet another Axis of Insecurity along which I can feel like I am not good enough.

There are plenty of women on this list, so it’s not about the likes of me being underrepresented, as is the case in my technical field. Rather, it has to do with me, personally, feeling like I am not good enough to make the selection and appear in that particular company.

We often talk about impostor syndrome as a systemic issue, and that’s certainly a big issue. When you are underrepresented in a competitive field, it exacerbates the feeling that you don’t belong. But individual people feeling insecure about their own competence is at the core of impostor syndrome, and beneath it is a fundamental, deep lack of belief that what you do matter.

I wrote about imposter syndrome frequently in the past, for example, here. and here. There are more posts, probably a dozen or so  total, which you can find by searching the blog for the word impostor (there’s a search box, not too visible on the desktop, but it’s in the dark gray line of the horizontal top menu).

I am happy to report that, when it comes to my profession, my impostor syndrome has greatly abated. I own my seniority and actually feel (rather than only know intellectually) that I am accomplished. For the most part, I am treated as someone who is established — when invited to serve on panels, to write various evaluation letters, to review papers. Colleagues ask for my opinion and advice. Students listen to what I have to say. In my late 40s, I’m at the top of my professional game, but, more importantly, I  feel that I am at the top of my game.

As I  wrote recently, it’s not all smooth. There are always new douches who expect me to convince them of my competence. But what has changed is that my gut response is, ‘I am fucking senior. I don’t need to convince you of shit. I can just drop this nonsense and leave, and it will truly be your loss.’ And then I actually believe it.

I don’t know what it is that finally made me feel like I am where I should be and doing what I should be. Probably a combination of things. Among them, for sure, is having been able to successfully propel junior people. Helping people get first-author publications, receive PhDs, and get good jobs on the strength of my professional connections; heling junior faculty make tenure; helping junior collaborators fashion white papers and proposals from something ho-hum into something exciting and fundable.

To me, all the objective markers of competence reached a critical mass and finally managed to convince me that I am no longer an impostor. Granted, all this took the better part of two decades, but better late than never, and, most importantly, it did eventually happen.

I see male faculty who are junior to me and who’ve never had to waste energy on battling impostor syndrome. That’s a lot of energy that they can use more productively. But, as annoying and energy-wasting as impostor syndrome may be, I also feel it keeps a person humble. And, in my case, I think it also makes me better attuned to those who might be fighting their own insecurities, and makes me more generous when offering support and praise.

Now I have a new endeavor, and impostor syndrome flares up again. I look at all the established authors while I feel like someone who belongs at the kiddie table. There are writers who started around the same time as me, but who write much more and have already gotten novels and movie deals and big awards. It’s hard not to feel like I really have no business being there, with my one story every few weeks, working around my family and demanding day job, tackling a novel over school breaks. And the worst thing is that I feel greedy. Yes, you read it correctly — greedy. Like all these folks hustling for writing success are giving it their all. I already have a career — a well-paid, competitive, successful career — so who am I to write? Should I not leave it to serious writers? Am I taking oxygen and publication space and award-shortlist space from those who are more worthy? (Yes, this sounds exactly like a woman professor feeling she’s snatched a faculty position from underneath the men who are somehow entitled to it. )

(My husband, of course, is a man lucky not to have ever been afflicted with impostor syndrome. He finds my worries about greediness ludicrous, and generally encourages me to pursue each and every one of my hobbies and interests, saying that being awesome at more than one thing is, well, awesome, and that I don’t owe anyone anything, certainly not to step away so they could have their chance. Of course he makes sense. He always makes sense. I know all this intellectually, but it’s hard to feel the truth of it at my core.)

I think some people are particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome; it has to do with general insecurity. (Some other people don’t feel they should stop doing a thing even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, so yeah.) But women, in particular, are socialized to not take up space, to not ask for consideration, and instead to make sure everyone else’s needs and wants are met first. I know this is how I often feel, and it takes a lot of energy to keep overriding it every single day. It has to do with a deep feeling that what we are and what we want is simply not very important, and that others have the right to be noticed and appreciates before us, and all this absolutely comes from family and early education. Sadly, these traits are absolute murder for a woman who, as an adult, tries to achieve anything professionally in the modern US society, where one must project confidence and self-promote, both very much traits praised in boys but not in girls. Of course things feel unnatural and unwelcoming when you have to play on a field where all your strengths are weaknesses, and where your systematically extinguished natural impulses suddenly seem to be prime strengths.

Honestly, this topic makes me weary.

I wish I were a more confident person at my core. I am not. All the confidence I have is hard won, and supported by abundant objective evidence. The bad news is that some people feel like they’re on top of the world, no matter what, and most things are easier for them. The good news is that insecurity can make you  more tenacious and resilient, and also more compassionate as a person and mentor, and insecurity doesn’t actually have to stave off real achievement. And, at least in my case, enough objective achievement in my work did move the needle on my dial of self-worth. Maybe it will happen again some day with my fiction, too.

Wise and worldly readers, let me know what you think about impostor syndrome and confidence, in general. 

Book Recommendations

Pyrope asked for book recommendations, and I am happy to oblige. 

I have Kindle Unlimited and also buy a vast majority of books online, but here are some recently enjoyed paperbacks. 

Collections of flash (stories of up to 1000 words) and short stories: 

StoryCollections

Horror novellas: 

HorrorNovellas

Collections of poems: 

Poems

I also read plenty of sci-fi. For example, anything by Becky Chambers is an automatic purchase for me. I recently enjoyed these sci-fi books on Kindle (I also borrow a lot through my library’s Overdrive):  

The Rush's Edge Stringers

As for fantasy, I don’t really like high/epic fantasy or sword and sorcery (the genres that most people associate with fantasy), but I do love dark fantasy, fabulism, and urban fantasy. I can never read enough about paranormal detectives. Seriously. I would take those stories intravenously.   

Finally, after over thirty years of actively avoiding to read even a lick of romance because of thinking it’s too lowbrow (I fully admit  to having been a misguided literary snob), this veritable middle-aged horndog (hornbitch?) has seen the light and has been devouring scorching-hot romance (mostly contemporary or mixed with other genres like suspense, paranormal, horror, etc.).  I do post some recommendations in the comments over at nicoleandmaggie’s, where both the hosts and the readership are amenable, and I am happy to do so here if there is interest. I don’t want to “bush ambush” unsuspecting readers who are here solely for academic topics, at least not without a good reason/explicit interest from readers. 

Blogosphere, what are you reading these days? What are your favorite genres? Let’s talk books!