Friday, January 15, 2010

The Ugly Duckling Syndrome Revisited
(A Writer’s Perspective)

I was an ugly kid. I had red hair and freckles when both were extremely uncool. Remember how people laughed at country music before it became cool? Yeah, that was me—the stepchild. I was a tomboy and painfully shy. I didn't have nice clothes. Not even close. I grew up middle-class in a small, logging town. For extra fun, this town is located in the rainy Northwest. That means I had a roof over my head, mud covered shoes, and I learned to accept my brothers’ hand-me-downs as a standard back-to-school shopping alternative. I didn’t have any friends and I had my butt handed to me on a weekly basis—often coming home covered in bruises. I was the last kid picked for PE teams and I was the first kid slammed in the face during dodge ball. I developed anorexia by third grade, bulimia by seventh. These were not happy years.

My metamorphosis into “cool chick” status started around freshman year when [insert the popular, good looking boy’s name here] walked up to me in class and announced he’d noticed my boobs were bigger than the previous year (I know, some kids should be smothered at birth).

By sophomore year (15 years later), I had arrived. I had a steady boyfriend and a number of people I referred to as friends. But blossoming late isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The same people who dodge-balled my face and tripped me down the stairs were now my “friends.” I think that was a step up but I'm still not sure. I didn’t trust my judgment, much less anyone’s motives. It's possible I was bitter. You just don’t go through fifteen years of negative and bounce back feeling great about yourself.

MANY years later when I recovered from my childhood trauma and severe eating disorders, I met and married a kind, handsome man. If you ask him about his childhood, his first answer is always, “I was the fat kid with big glasses. It sucked.”

Does anyone ever get over these years?

Up until very recently, I thought I had.

I’ve been writing stories for twenty years. For fifteen of those years I merely dabbled; writing manuscripts, sending those to agents/editors, improving a little, and sending out again. Five years ago I got serious, joined a few writing groups, and I’ve made tremendous progress in my craft. But after fifteen years of rejections, how does an ugly-duckling writer take herself seriously? How does she know she’s arrived?

I'll admit those years of rejection took a toll. Even now, when a well-known agent or editor asks for my full manuscript based on a partial he/she LIKED, my first reaction is, “What kind of fly-by-night outfit is this? Do they have any idea what they’re doing?”

Seriously, it’s startling when you get a kiss on the cheek instead of a dodge ball in the nose. You’ll rationalize it. You’ll tell yourself it isn’t real. You’ll try desperately not to hope. Is it really, truly, honest-to-god possible you’ve arrived?

How did you convince yourself you’ve arrived? Or have you?


Nannette Conway said...

Callie, you are so brave to share such a personal story with us. And I wonder too if we ever really "get over" the things we experience in life.

I don't have an answer for knowing when you've "arrived" cause I haven't. At times I still wonder if I'm on the right road or somehow missed a major turn I should have known about!

Yesterday I read a blog about rejections and this was included: John Creasey, English crime novelist—753 rejections before publishing 564 books. It's a tough business. Definitely not one that easily shores up our shaky confidence!

Callie James said...

You're so right, Nannette. This definitely isn't a pursuit for anyone with shaky confidence. This hasn't been much of an issue for me until 2009 when I received quite a few requests from agents/editors for my latest paranormal. I kept having that reaction and thought, wow, I guess I'm not over my childhood after all.

In talking with numerous published author friends, I'm beginning to think most authors don't ever feel they've arrived. I imagine it has something to do with the lack of job security in this business.


Christy Reece said...

Oh my, if I told you about my childhood, I'd either have you in tears, sobbing with sympathy or tears of hysterical laughter. It was sad and funny and infinitely forgettable. If only I could!

When do you know you've arrived? I don't know. I only know I haven't and greatly doubt that I'll ever think I have, no matter what happens. I don't think it's ever a good idea to get too comfortable with anything, whether it be a career, a marriage, or just life in general. Things happen too quickly to change, for better and for much much worse.

And honestly, when you look at a person and think, "Wow, she's got it together or he's got everything any person could want" there's always the knowledge that no one ever has it all together or has everything they want. And that's why I don't think you can ever sit back and think, "You've arrived." You strive for new goals every day. When you reach those goals, you have new ones you want to achieve.

That's just the way life is. Having arrived might mean the journey is over. And often, wherever you're headed in life, you realize the journey was actually the most enjoyable part.

LOL. Ramble much? Hope that made sense. Feeling a bit reflective today.

Great post, Callie!

Jeanie said...

Callie, I was an ugly duckling, too, a blonde Olive Oyl with size eleven feet and legs like pipestems. And I wore glasses. And my mother dressed me funny! I did not go to prom and I did not burst out of my cocoon until after high school. Still, in my heart of hearts, I am that homely girl. So, I know exactly how you feel! I am riddled with insecurity and self-doubt, but we have to push through those negative feelings and let them not control us, if we want to succeed!

Callie James said...

Oh so reflective, Christy, and oh so right! We probably never arrive. But I'd like to think I could hit a milestone or two. :)

Callie James said...

Jeanie, it's so good to know I have a fellow duck in this with me! Your description of you back then cracked me up though. You have a true gift for humor. I can't wait until you're published so I can read your work. :)

Gwen Hernandez said...

Callie, I can totally relate. I didn't have a lot of self-confidence growing up, and was not good at standing up for myself. I still don't feel like I fit in most days.

I've worked really hard to become more assertive and more outgoing, but it never stops being work.

I know smart people who grew up believing they were dumb, and despite all evidence to the contrary, still feel stupid deep down.

We may never exorcise the demons of childhood fully, but don't give up the fight!

Thanks for sharing your story.

Callie James said...

Thanks, Gwen. It is a lifelong struggle to overcome, I think. I'm beginning to think God meant it to be that way.

Louisa Cornell said...

Let me see. How about the time I won the country 4-H cooking contest and for the state finals I had to have a white dress to wear with my 4-H sash. The dress had to be approved by the ladies of the state 4-h board. My Mom made the dress and these ladies picked it apart, piece by piece telling me everything that was wrong with it. I snatched back my dress, packed up my display stuff and all of my cooking supplies and equipment and called my Mom to come and get me. Those ladies tried to talk me into staying and I finally told them to "Go to hell!" My Mom never knew why I quit and I never told her. But that episode was only one of many in my life that came as a result of being the daughter of a poor enlisted man and his Cherokee/Creek wife.

I was the smart kid with the hand me down clothes and nobody ever let me forget it. Until they heard me sing. My voice took me all over the world and still there were people out there who made me feel like the girl in the homemade dress. I auditioned in the States and got some horrible comments. (You sound like Maria Callas on steroids - not nice to hear!) BUT in Europe they appreciated my voice and it STILL took a long time for me to stop thinking "Are they SURE they want me in this role?" But I'll tell you this. Every time I finished a performance and stepped on that stage to take my bows and heard the applause and saw those people clapping for me I thought for just an instant "Go to hell, you snotty old 4-H ladies! The girl in the homemade dress just got a standing ovation from a German opera audience!"

The first time I entered the Golden Heart I had NO CLUE what a big deal it was. (My CP LIED to me! Heifer!) And when they called to tell me I finaled I missed the bed and sat down on the floor. And every time since then when I final in a contest or when I queried agents and got requests I thought "Are they SURE they want my book?" This whole writing thing has been a surreal journey. And the journey is the important thing. If you make the journey you want to make, and treat people well along the way, and learn something new at every stage of the journey you will come to realize that YOU are the destination. Every day of your life you are journeying toward who you really are. And the best part is, no matter how many detours and wrong turns or just side trips to see what's over the next hill you take, tomorrow you can get up and continue the journey.

And when I finally publish a book and have my first book signing in my home town I hope some of those 4-H ladies show up. And I hope I remember to write something nice in their books because you all KNOW what I really want to write!

We are each a creation of God wondrous, unique, glorious and ever changing and there are no limits to what we can become and no expiration date on our dreams.

Callie James said...

Louisa, I love it. Thinking of ME as the destination -- neat!

Kind of takes the pressure off a little, doesn't it?

I had a similar 4-H experience. Maybe it's 4-H. Weird.

Christine said...

Are we all like, soul sisters? I grew up in mining town the daughter of an intellectual who taught me huge words. I also had daily butt kickings and, because it was in northern canada, suffocating head burials in show drifts. Joy. Not.
I didn't suffer from eating disorders, but I struggled with other issues stemming from my need to feel loved and accepted. It took me years to respect myself and treat myself with love.
My husband also had a tough childhood: fat kid, poor family, child of divorce in a small town. Despite all his successes in his career and personal life, he still looks over his shoulder on occasion. He's always planning for something to go wrong. I finally told him to start enjoying the good times. Because bad crapola happens whether we want it to or not.

Angst, the bedrock of good writing. Perhaps it is that legacy that gives us the muscles we need to drive our books forward.

M.V.Freeman said...

I understand on many levels what you have gone through. Getting out of High school..away from everyone was the best thing ever for me. I won't even go to the bloody reunions. Bleh.

I think being wary is normal, and smart, at the same time don't let it cripple you. Keep moving are talented! and it is only a matter of time. :-)

Jeanie said...

What a wonderful post and how wonderful it is to feel connected to people who truly understand! Ugly ducklings unite! Let's kick some publishing boo-tay!

Jeanie said...

What a wonderful post and how wonderful it is to feel connected to people who truly understand! Ugly ducklings unite! Let's kick some publishing boo-tay!

Callie James said...

Good advice, Christine. I try to at least present myself as living for the moment without expectations of the worst. Most people who meet me now assume I have had an easy life. I'm not sure why. Maybe I fake it well?

It's important for our careers too. I've met many accomplished people who are so humble it's almost uninspiring. Confidence is our friend in this business, or at least perceived confidence. :)

Callie James said...

Hey, Mary! I don't do reunions either, and let's face it, with Facebook you don't need to.

Callie James said...

You're right, Jeanie. After all of this support from fellow ducks, I'm beginning think maybe we were the majority instead of the minority.

One good thing I can pull out of that childhood--I was an excellent student (probably from all that time I spent hiding in the library).

Christine said...

Callie: years ago I went on a spiritual retreat and learned one important thing. We all wear masks. We all tend to label because we're trying to find a way to fit or to protect ourselves from harm. But at the retreat, I learned that most people are not worried about US, they are in their own heads worrying about themselves. It made me quit worrying (for the most part) about what people thought of me. And it gave me the courage to ask/demand if I was scared.


Callie James said...

Hey, Christine. I tell my son the same thing all the time. People rarely are as concerned with us as we think they are.

Thank goodness for that.

Cari Hislop said...

I had the pariah syndrome too (I had no social skills and I naturally go against the grain (pretty in pink but without a boyfriend, cool job, cool clothes, car, lovely red hair...or even managable hair) so it wasn't pretty! In junior high my mother seriously suggested I shave my head and wear a wig. That sums up my parental assitance!

Louisa said, "If you make the journey you want to make, and treat people well along the way, and learn something new at every stage of the journey you will come to realize that YOU are the destination." I've long felt this, but never consiously put it into words...these are lovely! I'm going to copy them and save them. And Louisa, those 4-H ladies, whoever they were, were evil! I can't even imagine a little girl coming to me with a smile and excitement to be creative and learn and grow and tearing apart her dress. I'm glad you packed up and told them where to go! What a bunch of witches.

To Callie: You have a really lovely face...I would never have guessed you were an ugly duckling!!! A few years ago I wrote a story where both the hero and heroine have red hair. I had to vent my fury after hearing a pregnant acquaintance say she hoped her baby wouldn't have red hair. I couldn't imagine anyone not wanting a red headed baby. I've not been able to have children so I would take whatever baby came my way and feel blessed, but I particularly love red hair, especially what I call cinnemon orange. I had no idea that red haird people faced so much descrimination and stupidity from other people. Something good came out of it, these nine brothers all with red hair were born and I adore them all. I wish they were my sons!

I don't know if we ever really get over the trauma of childhood, but I think as writers we're blessed to be able to pour that trauma into stories that can help and inspire other people be resilent and survive. Through our characters we can share how we coped...or at least that we survived. You couldn't pay me to re-live junior high-highschool. All the money in the world would NOT be enough, but I wouldn't change it either because its made me stronger and has enabled me to empathise and love people who I would otherwise have written off.

I've never thought of it as The Ugly Ducklign Syndrome, but that's a really lovely way of putting it. If we had to go through hell to grow up to become swans I think one way of looking at it least we're not chickens! :)

Callie James said...

Ha! Thanks, Cari. Yes, it's actually called The Ugly Duckling Syndrome. There's a definition for it. Yuck.

I agree. I think I came out better for it, but you couldn't pay me a million to go through it again.