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Looking Back

In the past week I have twice introduced myself to people in a positive way. Yes!

As some of you will recall, I blogged earlier this month about my bad self-depreciation habits—bad because, if I don’t sound very confident in my work, how can I expect anyone else to be?

But I think I might be turning a corner.

One piece of advice I received after posting my blog was ‘know thyself’:

This is a tough one! How do you get someone who is hard-working, talented, and accomplished to accept… inside… what the rest of us outside find obvious? The quick answer: you can’t. It has to come from you. No one can *make* you see it. Was it the Greeks who said, “Know thyself”? That’s the beginning.

If you truly know who you are and what you have accomplished, then you can accept, and be comfortable with, your self-worth. Once you have that, and you realize that as your failings don’t make you a failure neither do your successes make you superior, you will be well on your way to telling people, “I’m a writer. I’m just finishing my latest book.” Say it with a smile. You will be saying something that 90% of the people in the world wishes it could say, and almost all of them will reply back, “Really? What’s it about?” And you are on your way a comfortable social interaction.

Peter Spenser, 9 March 2012

So, I thought, Zena—who are you? Well, I am a writer of fiction with a speculative edge, usually about people with… issues. So, I thought, why don’t I just say that? Then, if someone wants to chat more about my writing life, or ask what successes I’ve had to date, my telling won’t sound like boasting because I’ll simply be answering their question.

Problem solved!

But from where did the problem stem in the first place? Last weekend, my parents asked me about the blog I’d written and, in explaining my bad habit to them, I suddenly realised… it all started when I was eighteen.

I worked hard for my GCSEs (for those who don’t know, these are the exams that English teenagers take at 16yrs old) and for my A-levels (taken at 18). I wanted to get into the university of my choice and a good set of results was the only way to achieve that goal. There were girls at my school—the type of grammar school you had to sit exams to get into—who didn’t have to work as hard for their grades. They were whiz kids. But I was only a whiz at determination.

Staying up until 4am, reading, revising; then getting up at 6am to cram—I became an insomniac. There was no point in sleeping, I’d only dream of my studies. I taped myself reading aloud key points (what a nerd!), then listened to them in the car on the way to school. Highlighters and mnemonics became my best friends.

Thankfully, it paid off.

Straight A’s.

I was so happy, and relieved. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone! But when I saw my friend Sonja slumped against a wall, crying, I quickly wiped the smile from my face. Not everyone had done well.

“Go away, Zena!” she yelled as I walked over to see if I could cheer her up. “I don’t want to see you!!”

I remember her words exactly because they hurt so much. Did she really think I would be all happy and smiley around her if she’d done bad? How could she think I was that thoughtless a friend?

In hindsight, she probably didn’t think either of those things. She probably just wanted anything and anyone that was going to make her feel worse— including my presence—out of sight. I had no idea how she even knew I’d done well already. I  never had that kind of faith in my abilities.

All I knew back then was I never wanted my successes to make anyone feel bad again. And so it began…

Funny how much one little incident can affect you, especially when you’re young. Reversing those affects may still take me a while, but at least I have a mantra now.

Know thyself, know thyself.

I wasn’t responsible for how bad Sonja felt that day, and when other writers do well I never feel bad about my own writing—only proud of them and motivated to match them. So be free, Zena, be free to tell everyone who you are. And stop looking back.

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Zena Shapter is a British-Australian fiction writer and published author. She has won multiple awards for her short stories; leads the widely attended Northern Beaches Writers' Group; and blogs about contemporary book culture (at http://www.zenashapter.com/blog/). She also has a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Birmingham, England; is the author of a rather clever legal volume published by CCH Australia (on intellectual property, ha ha!); has had her writing studied at university; and has a brilliant debut novel just waiting to be published. Read more about Zena on her website (at zenashapter.com), or find her on your preferred form of social media.

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