Two years ago, while my grandmother was dying of cancer, I discovered she’d once had a calligraphy piece in an exhibition at the Newberry Library, an independent research institution in Chicago. She didn’t tell me this herself; I happened to find an old brochure from the event with her name listed as an exhibitor.
How could she neglect to mention this? Being part of a Newberry exhibition is definitely a brag-worthy accomplishment. Plus I’d started working on an historical novel that featured the library rather prominently, and was also based quite a bit on her family’s past, so the connection was sort of serendipitous.
I asked her where the piece was. I wanted to take it home and add it to the shrine of her artwork that was steadily collecting in my house. “Oh, that. I gave that away a long time ago,” she told me.
“You gave it away? Why?”
“Someone offered to buy it. Lots of people had prices on theirs. But I was too embarrassed to charge anything for mine. So I said, ‘If you like it, you can just have it.’ I always gave them away if anyone asked.”
Later she told me about the time she was asked to do the calligraphy for someone’s wedding—hundreds of invitations, the kind of offer any artist would be thrilled to get. “I didn’t want to do it because I’d be embarrassed if it wasn’t good enough,” she said. “So when the woman asked me how much I’d charge, I gave her a really high quote. That way I figured she’d have to say no. But she said, ‘Ok.’ I was shocked! Then I thought, ‘Oh shoot, I guess I really have to do it now. What if it’s terrible? She’ll ask for her money back.’”
Of course that didn’t happen. The woman called to thank her profusely and rave about how beautiful the invitations were.
There were other offers she did turn down, though. If she hadn’t, she probably could have had a career as a freelance calligrapher or an instructor or something else. After all this wasn’t merely a casual hobby—she spent unbelievable amounts of time and money taking courses at Columbia College and elsewhere; she applied for (and was accepted) to private classes with well-known calligraphy masters. She was also a member of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective, a non-profit network and artist community.
Everyone who knew her work agreed that she possessed a remarkable talent. But unfortunately her self-doubt was just as vast as her potential—my incredibly gifted grandmother worked full-time in a tool factory for forty years instead.
There is a notebook I keep on the shelf above my desk. It’s called The Art of Writing, An Illustrated Journal. It is sprinkled with inspirational quotes on blank pages meant to be filled with words. Inside the front cover I wrote: From Grandma, October 1995.
I was sixteen. I remember being flattered that she gave me something so grown-up, so serious, especially next to my spiral notebooks covered in band stickers and doodled graffiti. I didn’t even write much of anything yet. Certainly nothing of substance. My literary output for that entire decade amounted to a lot of angsty teenage screeds in insufficiently-locked diaries and hideous poems about jilted love, fueled by hormonal rage. It’s true that I’d loved books since before I could even read them, so I’d always had the vague idea that someday I’d like to see my name on the cover of one, but she seemed to think I was secretly stashing the Great American Novel in my dresser drawer. Such high expectations were a compliment but also a lot of pressure. “I don’t even know what to write about,” I’d tell her.
“Write about me,” she’d say.
Her support was typical proud grandma fare, but it was also, I think, an attempt to fix what was broken in herself; that her unrealized dreams could be soothed by seeing something like them manifest in her granddaughter. She didn’t just encourage me to push forward, she demanded that I do.
In fact one of the last things my grandma ever said to me, between raspy measured breaths, was, “Is your book done yet?”
Three years, hundreds of pages, and countless hours later, not to mention dollars—in tuition for a Master’s degree in writing; to pay a babysitter while I wrote; doled out for any and every book related, however tangentially, to my historical subject, even a research trip to D.C.—no, it’s not done yet. The manuscript sits in bits and pieces, unfinished. It’s not good enough.
I’d fully intended to finish it in time for my grandma to see it, if not published, then at least whole, so I could print it out for her to read. It was, in a way, her dying wish. Every time I visited her home or her hospital bed, she’d ask: Is your book done yet? But I could never get over the embarrassment of actually handing it over, the thought of her reading what I wrote and secretly thinking, “this sucks,” though I knew she would never say anything like that out loud. Did I really want my grandmother to leave this world with my subpar novel draft the last thing on her mind? My deepest, most horrible fear was that she would go realizing she’d been wrong about me all that time.
So I abandoned the book. In the meantime I started other projects, increasingly aware of the pattern I was repeating.
Like my grandmother, my mother is creative and artistically-inclined. She also suffers from a crushing case of Not Good Enough. Despite the fact that the elaborate costumes she’s made my daughters have received generous compliments, despite requests from other parents who want to commission their own, my mother always says the stitches weren’t straight enough, the fabric wasn’t falling quite as she’d envisioned, the sewing machine wasn’t cooperating.
“You could start an Etsy shop and sell these,” I tell her.
“Are you kidding?” she says. “I’d be embarrassed.”
More often than not, her sewing projects are abandoned before they’re completed. Begin. Falter. Quit. Repeat. It’s apparently what we do—me, my mom, and my grandma. It’s what many women do.
A friend posts a quote online: The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. Numerous studies have suggested that this—crushing self-doubt—is primarily a women’s ailment, and quite a common one. That’s not to say that all women have this problem, or that we all experience it in the same way, but when I look around me, I see it everywhere. In my family, my friends, even strangers on the internet. Yes, men experience self-doubt too, but the difference is that women are being socially conditioned for it, whereas for men it’s mostly a personal matter, born from specific personal circumstances, not the result of a culture that demands they downplay their accomplishments and be humble to a fault.
Always be nice, women are told. Always be likable. It isn’t nice or likable to think too highly of yourself. It isn’t nice or likable to be competitive or to brag—that must done surreptitiously, if at all. I don’t think of myself as a people-pleaser. I’m opinionated. I’m rebellious. But had those messages affected me anyway? Had they been planted in my head, waiting for just the right time to explode?
I thought about the names of the other Newberry exhibitors in my grandma’s brochure, the ones whose pieces said “SOLD” next to them. Names like Bob, Richard, John. I thought about the names of her instructors. I thought about the names on the personal business cards she had in her calligraphy room, the saved correspondences with her instructors and peers: Dear Joan, Keep up the good work. –Bill. Would my grandmother’s male colleagues turn down a job offer for fear they didn’t deserve it? Would they toil away for endless hours, months, years, and hide the result of their hard work, thinking it wasn’t ever good enough?
In a 2014 article for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti wrote: “It’s true that there’s a gendered disparity in confidence – American men overestimate their abilities and skills while women underestimate them. In fact, we’ve known this for some time: ‘imposter syndrome’ – a phenomenon in which high-achieving women believe ‘they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’ – was first written about in 1978.”
The Atlantic also talked about “The Confidence Gap” between men and women. So has The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Forbes, and, of course, Oprah.
There is an entire genre of books about this phenomenon aimed at women. Most famously Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In but also Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel and last year’s The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. They tend to focus on the behavior of women as individuals, suggesting personal failing or possibly a defect in the XX chromosome, whereas others, like Valenti, point to a society that continuously devalues us, creating an entire culture of self-doubt, a rampant social epidemic of Not Good Enough. We—me, my mother, my grandmother—are definitely not alone.
I grew up watching my mother abandon projects. I saw my grandmother toil away all day for little pay while her true passion was sidelined. I won’t be like that, I always swore. I’d entered adulthood obsessed with doing things to prove I could finish whatever I started. That I could achieve. But eventually it caught up with me too, when things got too real. This work isn’t good enough. I’m not good enough.
My grandmother is gone but I still hear her in my sleep, asking: “Is your book done yet?”
I opened the dog-eared book of quotations I took from her calligraphy room and read:
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
I remember my great-grandmother, holding her thin hand over mine at the kitchen table and smiling. I wonder what her unfinished talent was. What potential did she suppress, only to have the frustration seep out of her, scattering throughout her home for my grandmother and her sisters to consume? How far back does it go? How many women in my family, in all of ours, have sat silent, wishing for fulfillment but doubting they could have it, that they deserved it, while the men around them made mistakes but moved on past them towards success?
The next time my grandma comes to me in a dream and asks, “Yet?” I’ll say, “Yes.”
Stephanie Sylverne lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three daughters. She has a master’s degree in secondary education and is graduating from DePaul’s Master of Arts in writing and publishing program this spring. Her work has been featured in Time, xoJane, Kveller, HipMama, Huffington Post, MomHouston, and a couple of essay anthologies. Follow her on Twitter: @kvetchingyenta.