You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.
–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I’ve taken to writing motivational quotes on pieces of paper and taping them to the wall above my desk (I do this unironically, and with only a little bit of embarrassment that someone might come over and see them). These quotes are about transition and academia and confidence, and together they make up a script of positivity which I’m trying to memorize. The quote from Bird by Bird, the one the title of this post comes from, is by far the most important. Why? Because pursuing a PhD has demolished my confidence and my intuition. It’s left me completely unable to trust myself when it comes to work and writing. I’m trying to earn that trust back. I’m trying to be on my own side.
being my strange little self before it occurred to me that wasn’t okay
Before I go further, a little background. I come from the kind of family where kids are expected to pull their weight: my parents taught me to work hard at school and at home, to help out where help was needed, to get a job when I was old enough, to be responsible for my own mistakes and my own triumphs. My parents never demanded straight As, but they did demand that I do my best. They also made me believe that I was capable of damn near anything, so my best was a tough bar to reach. And they were supportive to a fault. I was a kid who needed a lot of affection and a lot of compliments and they gave me those in spades. If I made a mistake or got a bad grade, I needed affirmation that I was still good enough, smart enough, loved enough to do better next time. I’m so thankful that my mom and dad loved me this way. Because of it, I got to be my strange little sensitive self for a while without worrying about being accepted.
As is true for most human beings, this got a lot harder when I was a teenager. I didn’t always please my parents (especially my dad) and being strange and sensitive was a tough combination in a small high school where everyone knew everyone’s business. As I’ve mentioned here before, I suffered from depression. And if you know anything about depression, you know it’s hard to be self-confident when your brain tells you that everything is awful.
Fast forward a few years. In my MFA program, I recreated that blissful childhood alternate universe where I believed I could do anything. My professors were as supportive and encouraging as my parents had been when I was little. I was showered with compliments while being simultaneously convinced that my best was an ever rising bar. I worked hard and I achieved small successes and I thought I was the shit. Seriously, I thought I was about to meteorically rise to the top of the poetry world. I was going to get a PhD and win a fancy first book prize and get a bomb-ass tenure track job at the SLAC (Small Liberal Arts College) of my choosing and go to all the cool residencies and win all the big prizes. In short, I believed I was amazeballs covered in awesomesauce.
Aaand then I got to Chicago, and I quickly ran out of awesomesauce. My amazeballs shriveled up and fell off. I felt dumb for maybe the first time in my life. Incapable. Uncreative and uninteresting. I’ve talked about this before. Being bad at theory and criticism sucked incredibly hard, but what’s worse is that I started to feel like I was no good at anything else. I came to believe that I was unprofessional, immature, unskilled…that my years of work experience prior to grad school had taught me nothing about how to behave around people of higher rank or social status; that my decades of being a good student had not prepared me to be one now; that my two years of positive teaching evaluations at one university were not an indication of my future success as a teacher at this one; that my past poetry publications, fellowships, and scholarships had nothing to do with my future as a writer. I can’t begin to explain how this all happened because I don’t remember. It’s like while I was driving across state lines with a truck full of boxes, my self-esteem blew out the open window and got run over by a semi-truck with nudiegirl mudflaps.
Was I too dependent on positive affirmations from others? Probably. But I can also say with certainty that I’m not the only person to pursue a PhD who has felt this way. Perhaps it’s because only high-achieving perfectionists get PhDs, so we’re suddenly surrounded for the first time by people who are smarter than we are, more successful than we are, and we don’t measure up by comparison. Perhaps it’s because PhD programs admit too many students and have to terrorize us so that we self-police, take ourselves out of the running. Perhaps it’s a teaching philosophy I just don’t understand…they must break us to make us?
Ultimately, I don’t care that I have no future in literary criticism, that I don’t think going to lectures or conferences to talk about Marxism or obscure 19th century poetry is fun. I don’t even care that I was wrong about wanting to be a professor. But I do care about this: I care that I used to believe I could do anything if I tried hard enough and now the deepest part of me doubts that. I walk around telling myself and anyone who will listen that I’m smart and capable and can learn quickly, but when I’m quiet and alone (and perhaps writing a cover letter for a job I’d love) I can tell that I don’t really believe it. I care that I don’t write poems very often anymore because writing poems is scary and difficult and I’ve lost the ability to enjoy the scary and difficult. I care about that.
I’ve lost the ability to trust my own intuition because my intuition is lying to me. I am a good poet, and I am capable of a great many things–even though way down deep inside of me there is a voice saying that I’m not. So I write motivational quotes on pieces of paper, and I tape them above my desk, and I give myself a script to follow because my intuition is wrong. My intuition has been listening to people who don’t want what’s best for me, people who want what’s best for them or the university or god knows what and haven’t stopped to bother to ask if I’m on board.
I write this today because I’m preparing to sit down with my dissertation committee on Friday to talk about my prospectus and what happens next. It’s an important conversation because it will set the tone for the last step in my PhD. I can walk in and cower before them because I’ve lost my nerve, or I can walk in being militantly on my own side. I can ignore my chump-ass intuition and declare that my book is going to knock their fucking socks off, that I’m going to write the best and most interesting poems of my life, and that going through this difficult and painful process has made me smarter, bolder, and more creative. I need my confidence and my intuition to be the person and the writer I want to be, and rocking this meeting is the first step in getting them back.