I confess that I have this dream that is probably fairly common for most writers: to have that bestselling work that everyone talks about. I also confess that I often fantasize that my brilliance will be discovered posthumously. Two hundred years in the future, a tour group will traipse through the carefully preserved cracker box house with the overgrown lawn in South Austin saying, “This is where Holly Swift wrote her greatest work. She was far ahead of her time and no one understood her genius back then. Like Earnest Hemingway’s estate, her house has been turned into a cat preserve. Of course, it was always a cat preserve when she lived there.” This is because ever since I was in elementary school I have known that “far ahead of one’s time,” was probably the greatest compliment that anyone could ever have. It meant that you were brilliant and that you had insights into the human condition that no one else had. It also meant that you were destined to be misunderstood and either hated or ignored by most of your contemporaries.
As I get older, I muse upon the philosophical assumptions on which this dream relies. First of all the fact that I have always believed that “far ahead of her time,” was how I wanted to be remembered means that I have always been a future oriented thinker. I have always known that the world was less than it should be and had hopes that the future could be much brighter. I have also always known that I wanted to go down in history as someone who shaped that bright future. It meant I didn’t believe that progress was inevitable without conscious action and it meant that I didn’t believe we were doomed to die in an apocalypse. Also crucial to that basic assumption has always been that I should be remembered for my ideas.
I found a journal I wrote ten years ago. I said, “I want the whole world talking about what I write.” I wrote about wanting to walk in a whole of different people’s shoes to see what it was like and concluding that I would come up with even more questions if I knew them better. Sadly, I was even more cynical at twenty-six than I am at thirty-six because I wrote, “I once defined my ideal job as being one in which I helped people become better people. But now I don’t think that’s the case, it’s too overly idealistic, even for me.” I wrote about wanting to question every single foundation in the world, of being arrogant and ambitious, and of not letting popes and presidents off the hook. I wrote about having no fear of the power of a writer to shake everything with a few well placed words. I wrote, “I want to speak up for the world. I want to try everyone’s shoes on. I want to be the voice that can’t be silenced.”
But then I came upon this sobering bit in the middle of it all. “I want to tell you about an unspoken sexism that exists in this world. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but I think it’s something like this. If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to settle. You’re not supposed to want the world and above all, you’re not supposed to expect to go to the top. And you’re not supposed to believe in yourself. You’re supposed to make other people happy. Your self worth is defined in how well you live up to others’ expectations. You make good grades because it makes your parents happy. You go school where it makes people happy. You never tell people they’re wrong. It’s the unspoken rule – the one no one ever tells you, but you quietly learn. You ask your questions to someone else, someone insignificant, someone who might just listen, but not the someone who could actually do anything. I think the unspoken sexism in the world is that no one takes you seriously. I get the feeling that girls aren’t supposed to have inner voices or deep convictions. Girls can want to be famous for ice skating, singing, acting, writing romance novels, and even making scientific discoveries. But girls aren’t supposed to be famous for their ideas or what they think.” And then I wrote about how women’s dreams were supposed to be just doing what everyone else wants.
The tragedy in all of this was that I was behind the times. I thought that my observations on sexism and unspoken rules were deep, insightful, and original. Perhaps they were deep and insightful, but they were hardly original. I was merely waking up to the things that the other feminists already know. The even deeper tragedy is that while I named “it” in that journal, that horrific thing that held me back and kept me from taking risks or actually putting pen to paper, I still continued to listen to it. The wound is that sometimes I still do.
Let’s be honest – if my writing is discovered after I die then I can avoid the pain of being called a heretic and told I’m going to hell by people who love me. I don’t have to read a scathing New York Times book review that shatters my self esteem. Really, being discovered after I die means that I can remain dysfunctional and safely avoid any situations that remotely resemble conflict. Except that is not how you change the world. What is that quote about well behaved women and making history again? If I could go back in time and say something to myself at twenty-six or younger, I would offer this advice: Risk big and risk everything. Don’t let people limit your dreams because you’re a girl or because they have been burned by the world and became too cynical. You may lose everything and you may very well get burned. But scars from risks not taken hurt far longer than the flames of burning fires.