Posts Tagged ‘Backbone Project’

Some months ago I decided to do a deep dive into shame. Inspired by the work of Brene Brown, I began to look at everything in my life that had to do with shame. Any shame about who I was, about my weaknesses, about my past, about my decisions, about things as trivial as my sleep schedule and as loaded as my divorce. It was all fair game.

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame. That is because shame thrives best in the dark places, in the crooks and crannies, in secrets and things left unsaid. Shine a light on it, and it writhes and squirms and hurts like the devil. And begins to shrink or dissipate like it’s allergic to the sun.

Shame feels like the kind of thing we’re not supposed to talk about. Shame breeds shame breeds shame. Shame encourages us to keep that big bright light far away from it. Shame has a strong survival instinct.

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame, but I have had such positive results from looking at it and working with it, and I want to share that with you. Especially because now that I’m looking for it, I see shame around me all the time. Shame about how we look physically. Shame about how “successful” we are. Shame about mental illness and chronic illness. Shame about lifestyle choices. Shame about not being good enough. Shame about needs and boundaries. And on and on.

Shame is different from other emotions that we typically think of as negative. Sadness, fear, anger, these are challenging emotions with dark sides, but they also have positive functions. Sadness honors the losses we suffer. Fear reminds us to watch over our safety. Anger can give us the energy we need to set boundaries or fight injustice.

But shame? Shame feels deeper to me, and more toxic. I haven’t found any positive functions of shame. Shame keeps us isolated and lonely, and it’s the source for astonishingly cruel self-talk. It fights against the sense of worthiness that I think is an essential component of inner peace. It keeps us from being with ourselves, and it keeps us from sharing ourselves.

We learn shame from our families, especially dysfunctional ones, and even if we get lucky there, we learn shame from our society. We also learn shame from individuals, people who are often struggling with shame themselves. And so shame marches forward.

Doing a deep dive into shame is…well, it’s unpleasant. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of courage. It requires looking at the things we don’t want to look at, talking about the things we don’t want to talk about, acknowledging the painful emotions and behavior of both ourselves and others. And it also calls for a lot of compassion because otherwise, honestly, it would be too hard. Once I started, it was amazing to me how much muck there was to clean out. More of it kept bubbling up.

I hesitate to use the term life-changing because it sounds like hyperbole, but in this case I think it is merited. Cleaning out shame has been life-changing. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know it’s become something of a chronicle of personal change that started with me wanting to stop being such a people pleaser. That simple goal has taken me on a journey I never could have anticipated, and shame feels like it’s the very root of the problem. Finally. Here we are, performing a root canal on my psyche.

And the results? Well, this is a process, not a one-time fix and then it’s over. But over the last month or so I’ve been seeing the effects of the deep dive, and so far, this is what I can tell you.

I feel lighter. Everything feels different. My friends have been telling me things like “It seems like you have really found yourself” and “You seem a lot happier” and “Your choices seem to have really paid off.” I’m more likely to call bullshit, and when I do, I’m much more likely to think it’s stupid and much less likely to buy into it. I am slowly easing out of my protective shell because I don’t have as much need for it anymore. I am talking casually about things I didn’t use to talk casually about, if at all. I am being more direct, and I am being more authentic.

This isn’t a cure-all. I still feel uncomfortable sometimes (like talking about shame, for example). I still have attacks of writer angst. I still have emotions, I can still be disappointed, I still cry. I still sometimes dither, I still sometimes worry. I still have trouble sometimes saying no, or asking for help, or not apologizing, or remembering my needs are important.

But imagine shame as a heavy stone in the pit of your stomach. Imagine it weighing you down, getting heavier year after year, until you can barely walk from the burden. And then imagine realizing it’s there and chipping away at it. Imagine throwing it out of your body and far, far away, piece by painful piece.

It feels fucking incredible.

It feels like freedom.

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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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So what’s going on with your blog, Amy?

If you’re guessing my blog is coming up more than usual in conversation and correspondence, you’d be right. And there’s a story behind it.


I was sitting in the bar at ConFusion one night, the way you do when you’re a writer, and I was hanging out with two of my favorite bloggers. I have to admit I’m kind of snobby when it comes to bloggers, and these two people both knock it out of the park on a regular basis. And one of them said they had trouble emotionally connecting with my blog.

You might remember that at that time I was in the throes of impostor syndrome, so my poor brain was screaming at me, “You see, Amy, you see? You even FAIL AT BLOGGING.”

I listened to my brain for a minute or two, and then I said, “No, this is dumb, I don’t fail at blogging, and also, hello? This is a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY.”

So I asked these two bloggers for their advice. They had both read my blog. What was one thing I could do that would improve it and create a stronger emotional connection with my readers?

I talked with one of the bloggers about how to structure a post for maximum impact, which was geektastic and fascinating. And then I turned to the other blogger. “You tend to be kind of vague, Amy,” he said. “You don’t use specific details.” And then he gave me some examples.

And I thought, yes, I know, I totally do that, and worse, I do it on purpose, I pull my punches. I don’t say what I really want to say. I try to write about the truth without showing you the truth.

I tend to pull my punches in real life too. I can be so freaking nice. You know what other words spring to mind along with nice? Milk soppy. Wishy washy. BORING.


So I resolved, there and then, to write a post about my impostor syndrome, which is something that most writers face at one time or another and yet many of us are afraid to write about for fear of damaging our careers. And I resolved to NOT pull my punches. I resolved to pay attention to structure and to use specific details. I resolved to tell you what it was like in that bathroom, down to not knowing where the hell to put my glasses while I cried.

I became a better writer the day I wrote that post.

And the day I published the post? Well.

I did not expect the reaction I got. Not at all. The outpouring of support was….well, it was amazing and overwhelming and inspiring and strange and deeply meaningful. It changed me. You changed me. Part of the reason I write this blog is to give something to you, and then you wonderful human beings turned the tables on me and gave me something so precious that I’m tearing up while I’m trying to write about it.

Thank you.

Thank you thank you thank you.

So that’s what’s going on with the blog. I’m experimenting with the good advice from two bloggers who I deeply respect. I’m not pulling my punches. I’m trying to give myself permission to write the way I was born to write. And it’s making people uncomfortable, and it’s making ME uncomfortable, and it’s making me a better writer, and I don’t know where I’m going with it.

And it’s not just the blog that’s changing either; I’m changing right along with it.

Exciting times, my friends. Exciting times.

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I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I recently took a couple of online personality tests (the Myers-Briggs and the IPIP-NEO), and my results have changed. I’m now coming out fairly firmly on the extroverted side of things instead of being almost exactly in the middle.

I want to leave aside, for now, the argument that introversion is not a personality trait. I also don’t want to delve deeply into the sometimes ignorant stereotypes and oversimplification that goes along with discussions of introversion and extraversion.

I have not been trying to change into more of an extrovert, but I think me doing so has been a side effect of another change I have been trying to make: namely, to develop a backbone, tone down the people pleasing, and learn to set boundaries.

As it turns out, it is exhausting to be around people when you are a people pleaser. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert. It doesn’t matter if you know how to make conversation or can be a good listener or are a generally pleasant person to be around.

It takes huge amounts of energy to be around people when you aren’t allowed to say no, don’t value your own opinions and feelings and desires, and won’t stand up for yourself. Because the people around you might ask you to do something that you can’t possibly or don’t want to do for them. Or they might (inadvertently or not) treat you without respect. Or they might disagree about how something should happen, and then there will be conflict, which is anathema to the people pleaser. Or they might do something that bothers you but to which you do not feel able to respond.

At some point, in order to protect yourself from this huge expenditure of emotional energy, you might begin to build a wall around yourself. You might find yourself wishing to be alone because being alone is the only time when you can truly relax and be peaceful. You might keep other people at arms’ length to minimize the requests and the conflicts and the fatigue. You might need a lot of time to recharge after socializing.

You might appear to be an introvert.

But as it turns out, with proper implementation of boundaries, there are possibilities! You can say no. You can set limits on the behavior you’re willing to accept. You can stand up for your opinions. You can have opinions in the first place. You can object. You can have emotions. You can leave if you’re not having a good time.

You can be a better friend because you no longer need to demand perfection from yourself or from other people. You don’t need perfection when you’re allowed to communicate and take care of yourself.

And at some point, being around people just doesn’t take up as much energy as it used to.


Where’s Amy? Photo by Yvette Ono, photographer extraordinaire.

Let me be clear. I don’t think all or even most introverts are people pleasers, and that this is why they are introverts. I put no value judgment on how much time people like to spend with other people or how much alone time people want. But I do think that being a people pleaser can mask or change parts of the personality. In my own case, being a people pleaser encouraged me to become more introverted. But as I have been focusing on becoming less of a people pleaser, I’ve also been changing my social behavior and my attitude towards it.

I like seeing markers of progress, even unexpected ones. And I like feeling more fully myself.

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People will try to take your voice away.

They will try to make you shut up if you are different than them, if you have a different opinion than them, if you are engaging with an idea that makes them uncomfortable, if you are a woman, if you are below a certain age or above a certain age, if you have a darker skin color, if you are gay, if you belong to a different religious or political group, if the things you believe to be important are not the same things that they believe to be important.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will mock you, harass you, and make fun of you and what you are trying to say. They will tell you that women are inherently not as smart, talented, important, or fill in the blank as men. They will ask you why you have to think the way you think, why you have to ask the questions you’re asking, why you have to pick everything apart. Leave well enough alone, they tell you. You’re reading too much into it, they say. Be grateful for what you have. As if gratitude for the good requires a blanket of silence. (Anyone who tells you that you should be grateful has an agenda, and it’s not one that involves being particularly kind to you.) They will say that you are whining or bitchy or too negative.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will reward you for your silence. They will reward you for smiling, for agreeing, for not bringing it up, for being the nice one or the good one. You will get to avoid conflict and uncomfortable silence (until you start to realize that uncomfortable silence is not really all that bad a price to pay in order to refuse to be smothered). You will feel like one of the group, you might even be able to pretend that these people are your friends. (Except real friends will not try to pressure you into silence. They might change the subject or say they prefer not to discuss a specific topic, but they won’t try to make you feel small. And if they slip up, they will apologize.)

People will try to take your voice away.

They will feign ignorance, or maybe they genuinely will not understand how toxic they are being. They will be doing it for your own good. They will mean well. They won’t even notice. They will do some nice things for you, and you won’t realize your voice has died down to an inaudible whisper. Eventually you will internalize their voices and be harsh with yourself for doing positive activities like engaging in critical thinking. Their attempts to keep you quiet will become your own attempts to silence yourself.

People will try to take your voice away. But you don’t have to let them. You can keep talking, keep writing, keep singing, keep questioning, keep engaging, keep thinking, keep pushing out of your comfort zone. You can keep asking why: Why does the new Dove ad campaign make you uncomfortable? Why are you being criticized for doing something you didn’t do? Why do you like what you like and dislike what you dislike?

In both singing and writing, finding your voice is so important. Once you’ve found it, cherish the discovery and don’t let anyone take it away from you.

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