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Emails to my Therapist

Status Anxiety: Win Win Win….?

Hi Nicholas, Remember that time you and I had a conversation about my extreme frustration over my book sales figures? I refused to be consoled that they weren’t higher. Financial questions aside, I’ve thought in recent years that my status anxiety had to a significant degree slipped away.

But then last night I dreamed I was a debutante who had just arrived at the season’s climax of standing in a circle with other debutantes to be “presented.” There was no slot for me in the circle. I complained to the management. The debutante mistress started up a flight of stairs to take the matter to a higher authority, then turned back to me and said, “How successful a writer are you?”

A Debutante?

And so I stood there in my debutante outfit indignantly rattling off my credentials.

Apparently the question of my standing is still on my mind.

Several weeks ago I ran across a thrift shop copy of a book, titled Status Anxiety, that had useful if challenging thoughts on the subject.

A Status Anxiety Cure

Chief among these: such itchy unease comes not at all from where we stand, but by the habit of comparing ourselves to the rankings of others. And everyone can find someone to feel lesser-than. So stop comparing.

The author, the estimable Alain De Botton, argues that status anxiety didn’t appear until the idea came along that the opportunity for success is open to everyone. Back in the old feudal days, when most people were getting the raw side of that deal, serfs were all in pretty much in the same position. And they weren’t making themselves feel bad about not graduating to being lord of the manor. Because getting that job wasn’t possible.

I don’t wish for the return of a feudal system. And mostly I’m surprisingly freer of the lust to get to the top of the tree of sales success. (I would, however, prefer not to fall out of that tree.)

The Bottom Line

Being the daughter of merchants, I’ve tended to see success in terms of sales figures. Not every writer counts it that way. Some value critical success (and I’ve been happy with my results there) or lofty prizes (I wouldn’t mind a National Book Award.) Some writers are publisher snobs and want most to be published by Knopf or Farrar, Straus & Giroux (That’s at the bottom of my hierarchy of literary needs.)

As a teenager, I had no interest in being an actual debutante of the 19 year-old party-going variety. The summer of 1968 when I would have been eligible, I had a grown-up job as a reporter in the Women’s Department of my hometown of Wilmington, NC’s Star-News.

I felt sad for people who didn’t have this opportunity.

I felt thrilled to be assigned to cover the local ball of the debutante season.

I felt crushed when I saw that the women’s editor of Raleigh’s News & Observer had come to the Wilmington party and written a much better story about it than mine. My mother tried to console me by pointing out that this was the head of the department who’d had 20 or 25 years of experience, compared to my own two months on the job.

Making Excuses

I tried to console myself by noting that the N&O editor had brought a photographer and made her story look a lot better by running it with a splash of color photography, then unusual on newspaper pages.

Literary comparisons and excuse-making were starting early.

I’m happy they’ve somewhat tapered off.

Even so, the dream was a wake-up call about the content of my burbling unconscious. Before I found I didn’t have a slot in the circle, I’d already discovered that I’d shown up in the wrong dress. I came in a white formal debutante gown, only to discover that  most of the others were dressed alike wearing summery sleeveless teal shifts.

 

 

So I went back to the party house where I was staying and changed. But that made me arrive late and so on…. I do hate being late.

The Crazy Itch

It probably won’t ever end completely, the itch for more. I’ve seen so many writers say, “I’ll be happy if I just publish this….” And with some success, that attitude has often changed. I remember a client of mine who got a good agent 48 hours after sending her book out (results not typical)– and it took about that long for her to sheepishly admit she was already unexpectedly ravenous for more success.

Ravenous isn’t much fun, except in that instant when you see the plate of food heading toward your table.

This kind of ambition is a particularly American trait, according to Tina Brown in her deliciously good Vanity Fair Diaries. As editor in chief, she made that magazine a howling success. She also points out that in New York critical success is not the same as SUCCESS. (I thank you, God, for not making me aspire to be editor of Vanity Fair.)

Those Aggravating Obstacles

I note that in my dream, I was still insisting on my slot in the circle when I woke up. And I wasn’t feeling unhappy about having to do that– instead annoyed that there had apparently been a clerical error that I must correct. Perhaps my roiling unconscious is cockier than I realize. I did feel bad, though, that I was running late.

Those Sustaining Colleagues

The North Carolina writing community has a reputation for writers being helpful to other writers. I love that. Nobody can fulfill every request for help, of course, but most of us do the best we can. And a rising tide does seem to lift a lot of ships.

It would be a very isolated kind of life, otherwise. Those of us who teach or coach or critique also feel a special pleasure in the success of writers we work with– a strong satisfaction. At the the same time, most every writer (I daresay every writer) wants solid success of their own.

My urgency about these matters is somewhat calmed by the persistent sense that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, writing the particular stories I’m here to write, no matter how large or small the audience. That is far more supportive than telling myself — fifty years ago–that the News & Observer story looked better than it was because it had color photography.

A Retail Perspective

Being a merchant’s kid, I was raised with the expectations of being a strong competitor, to see that as worthy. And I do. My parents were highly successful competitors, who were also admiring friends of their sturdiest competition. Like good athletes and good lawyers are. I admire that in them, but don’t have quite enough of that temperament, that fire. (Perhaps because I’m not working on putting three kids through college.)

My long-ago former husband and I had a running Scrabble tally for the three-and-three-quarters years of our marriage. He was either two or three games ahead of me when we parted, and I’m not even sure which. I think I could have beat him or at least tied, if I could have maintained interest in the lengthy games. But we didn’t use a timer and he out-sat me. Or maybe I’m kidding myself. (My otherwise competitive mother would have said in this case, “Let him win! Did I raise a fool?”)

I enjoy some vigorous competition, for a time, in areas that don’t matter, like Scrabble. And I told myself not to feel old and outdone by the rubbery Indian twenty-something on the yoga mat beside mine in the class last night. I also know that the struggle to rank is so often a matter of comparing apples and oranges. Competition is pointless and counter-productive in matters of love. We don’t fall in love based on merit, instead based on mysteriously formed taste, with timing playing an important part as well.

Meet Me at the Top of the Heap?

One other thought: I think might rather tie than outright win a National Book Award. Fear of success, you once called it.

And I seem to be unable to go at other than my own pace: regular fast bursts of writing with dozens of drafts.

More to come on this subject of status anxiety, I’m sure, but I’m relieved to have traveled as far as I have in escaping it.

Or am I kidding myself? Probably it doesn’t really matter as long as it doesn’t make me feel bad or skew my work in a damaging way.

Peggy

 

 

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Comments

  • Kenju
    March 27, 2018 at 7:49 pm Reply

    I really don’t think you have to be anxious about status! You’re pretty high up on my list, and no doubt many others!!

    I just got home from playing Scrabble (Super Scrabble, to be exact) and my husband always asks how I did. Today I came in 3rd ( out of 5). It doesn’t bother me not to win, as the game and people are fun. – and that’s the objective.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 27, 2018 at 7:51 pm Reply

      Thanks, Kenju! And what a cool party idea, playing Scrabble!

  • March 28, 2018 at 5:21 pm Reply

    Strong, very personal post – I think both competitiveness and dominance hierarchy are part of our human mammalian genetic make-up. You can bet those serfs had a clear competitive hierarchy amongst themselves for status. It’s sure more comfortable to manage such genetic gifts rather than their managing you, yet not feel bad about having to deal with it.
    I’ll re-post this at my site and send to clients.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 28, 2018 at 6:41 pm Reply

      Now that’s interesting, Bob. De Botton didn’t seem to think that the serfs were scrambling for status or feeling bad about lack of it. He didn’t cite primary sources on that, I don’t think. Might not be so easy to find. I take a middle view and think they did have their own hierarchy but it may not have been quite such a scramble as efforts to achieve in this country. I suspect they were preoccupied with basic food and safety issues, staying alive, keeping kids alive. Thanks for the re-post, etc.

  • Ron Perkinson
    March 28, 2018 at 7:38 pm Reply

    Surprised that your dream revolved around the debutante world. That is primarily a function of birth. While your birth status may not make you a debutante, it can damned sure preclude your obtaining that status. Seems your anxiety is tied to your self-evaluation as compared to others. I think a more reasonable approach is to measure who you are compared to who you were. Should that 19 year old reporter not be thrilled to have had her writing ultimately reviewed favorably by The New York Times. It is quite possible that your success in your wolrld caused a crisis in confidence to that N&O society reporter. If that is the case, do you feel any differently about yourself? Or are you competing with everyone else without any thought of what effect your actions have on them?

    • Peggy Payne
      March 28, 2018 at 7:56 pm Reply

      The dream image may well have focused on the “debut” element of debutante, Ron, the wish to make a debut on the NY Times bestseller list. And the fact of my arrival at the debutante event in different dress from the others I think may have to do with the ongoing wrestle with conforming to market expectations (and sometimes figuring out what they are.)

      Interesting thought about considering the effect of my career on others. No, I never thought again about that N&O writer.

      I don’t seem greatly prone to celebrating where I am compared to where I once was. Instead, and more unsettlingly, I think my primary focus is on how close I can come to my ideal or the best version of myself. I want to be damn sure I play my cards as effectively as possible in getting my stories out to the world. (Wouldn’t mind ever-more-substantial worldly rewards either.)

      And thanks for your comment. This topic is one that people haven’t rushed to comment on.

  • Corey S
    March 31, 2018 at 1:29 pm Reply

    “Being a merchant’s kid, I was raised with the expectations of being a strong competitor, to see that as worthy.” Just one of the sentences I am deeply relating to .. Die Gym / yoga mat … Priceless !! .. What an honest, personal post … I would not have been surprised seeing your name on any page of a Vanity Fair … Thank you Mrs. Peggy , you’ve made my heart smile 🙂
    Corey

    • Peggy Payne
      March 31, 2018 at 8:07 pm Reply

      Your comment makes my heart smile, Corey S. I’m particularly pleased to get it in response to this post, because it’s so personal. I wrote it non-stop on the morning after my “debutante” dream–simply couldn’t stop–and completely forgot I had a doctor’s appointment. It’s fun to write like that, and also makes me more interested in what people have to say about it.

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