Pride Falls by Elizabeth Berg

I have a friend who's a very famous author, and the other day I asked her, "What's the first thing you wrote that you were proud of?" And she said it was her first novel. Which is a beautiful novel, but it was written when she was in her thirties. And I thought, What? Because the first thing I remember being proud of (and I'm talking proud, proud) was a poem I wrote when I was nine. It ended with the soul-stirring line, "The beauty enchantment now was broke." I actually submitted this poem to a magazine (where it was promptly rejected, needless to say).

Never mind. I got proud again, very soon afterwards, of something I wrote in the third grade. It was a page-long essay about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, accompanied for no extra charge by a construction paper silhouette. The essay moved me to tears every time I read it. The last line here was: "He had always wanted to free the slaves, and now he had." So. There you are. Don't you have tears in your eyes?

I turned it my essay (well, essay-ette, I think I might most accurately say) and waited for the teacher to plotz, or at least hold up my page before the class and say, "Now, this is what I was looking for! Elizabeth, will you please come forward and take a bow?" It did not happen. I handed in my essay and it was handed back with a passing grade. Period. But! I still have that essay, hanging out of some mildewed scrapbook, and I'll bet I could get five bucks for it on eBay just like that.

In high school, I wrote an essay about the ills of smoking, and at the top of the first page I glued an actual cigarette on which I had drawn a little face and made hair out of tobacco. The essay was from the point of view of the cigarette, you see. The cigarette was named Charlie, and he was extolling the virtues of smoking, but really he was revealing the vices of smoking. Oh, it was very clever, I thought. And the cigarette glued to the front? Darling. Plus an astonishing feat of artistry, I think you must agree. I got an A on that paper. The teacher thought the cigarette was cute; she liked my "creative approach." She wrote that in the margin in red pencil with an exclamation mark after it. Creative approach! Oh, one lived for those exclamation marks in red, didn't one? Unless they said something like MARGINS!!

In junior high, I wrote a longish play and read the whole dang thing over the phone to my best friend, I was so proud of it. And I thought she loved it too, because she kept so respectfully quiet while I read it to her, but in reality she had gone off to make a sandwich. And eat it. And wash her plate. I discovered this because she did not come back to the phone in time to hear the end of my play. "The End!" I said, with great satisfaction, and then I said, "So! Do you like it?" I waited for a rush of adulation only slightly mitigated by jealousy and heard....nothing. "Hello?" I said. "...Hello?" When she finally picked up the phone again and I asked, "Where did you go?" she told me.

I have now written 19 novels, 2 collections of short stories, and 2 works of non-fiction. And despite the fact that I have won awards for my books and have been the grateful recipient of many glowing reviews, I have never felt the kind of surety I did as a kid about anything I've written. I may love my work, but I do not enjoy that deep seated confidence about it any longer. I've gone wobbly on the inside. I suppose it's an indication of the fact that I have, at least in some respects, grown up and become aware of the fact that book publishing is a business and I am dependent for my livelihood on the opinions of others. And I have become aware of the arbitrary nature of just about everything, the way that the same object can be called black by one person and white by another, and each person is positive they are right. But despite the fact that I'm not as blindly self-assured as I used to be, I still feel a thrill every time I turn a book in. There is still a breathless joy in waiting for the response to the question, "Do you like it?" even when one knows the answer may grievously wound the unprotected heart. I don't know, I guess I hope it will always be that way.

Elizabeth's latest book, Home Safe, will be available in paperback from all good bookstores on September 29th. She can be found online at www.elizabeth-berg.net

It's such a shame we don't feel free to be 100% sure of ourselves as adults like we were when we were children. There is such freedom in childhood...freedom of creation, freedom to believe in yourself, freedom to love what you create. I think as we grow up those freedoms we feel are chipped away at by different people, including ourselves, for different reasons. It becomes much more difficult to wholly believe in our abilities because they are connected to so many other people and so many other things. But it's lovely to know that there is a time when we believe completely in ourselves and our talents.
This is a beautiful, thought-provoking post. Thank you.
# Posted By Amy | 9/23/09 5:37 PM
I agree with Amy, but sadly I suspect that a lot of children in developed countries these days don't get to feel that sense of pride in their creations, or perhaps lose it younger than they should. There was a (very long) article in the London Times a few days ago (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/ed...) which could equally apply to many parts of the USA where the pressure on children to perform in tests and get into the 'right' school has tipped over from setting children healthy challenges to unrealistic, even damaging, obsession, with too many children believing they're failures before they even get out of elementary school.
# Posted By Davina | 9/23/09 7:25 PM
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