on imposter syndrome + being a student

writing

We’ve all read about imposter syndrome, ad nauseam. Some argue that it doesn’t exist, that we’re right to experience self-doubt because we’re grappling with the reality of our limitations, that there will always exist things we know and don’t know, and our paralysis comes from confronting that fear. We’re taught that women experience imposter syndrome more than men because we’re told, straight out of the womb, all things we are and not. We’re taught to recede, to stand behind, to support. We watch old shows and movies where women are diminutive and deprecating, where they either pander to their beauty or folly. We tell our girls that they’re pretty before we praise their intellect, curiosity or artistic temperament. Even now, even after all this supposed change and time, women are still, in some respects, considered lesser than. I had a significant other who once tried to explain derivatives to me as if I was a small, developmentally-deficient child while I quietly reconciled his financials and made all his numbers foot.I have a journalist friend who studied engineering and she’s routinely talked down to by people who have nowhere near the amount of education and experience she has. In my last job, I spent more time trying to appease and be liked while my male peers’ acerbic and abusive behavior was tolerated and even accepted. And I’m not the only one. Women have to balance respectability with likeability on top of all the actual work they have to do.

I hate the word “ladylike” because it implies limitations, a way women should behave. So is it a shock that we doubt ourselves simply because we’re reconciling all the ways we should and should not be before we even evaluate our level of acumen and experience?

The things we carry.

I’ve been privileged in the sense that I’ve had a lot of wonderful professional opportunities and I’ve made a career over the past twenty years based on what I can build. I’ve built companies, brands and mentored hundreds of people. I’ve published books and a literary magazine and started an impact organization that aided disadvantaged women in Bed Sty, Brooklyn. And yet, whenever I start something new–an article, a book or a new project–I suffer from crippling, abject terror. Even if I’ve done what I’ve been asked to do dozens of times before, I still get anxious. I still wonder: can I do this? Still.

I read somewhere once that women won’t apply for a job unless they meet 90% of the criteria while men will apply if they have at least 60% of the required experience. I’ve built my career on overcoming fear and, on paper, I was never qualified for every job for which I’ve applied. I was all about positioning and side hustles. I was hired for a marketing role in book publishing because I had built and marketed a successful literary magazine online. It also didn’t hurt that I was a writer who was a voracious reader. I won a senior role at an agency because of my curious, non-linear CV. I tell people that I go to the challenge, even though it momentarily terrifies me. What did I know about managing clients after spending over 11 years on the brand side? What did I know about marketing business and diet books when I never read or enjoyed either? What did I know about starting an impact organization or a literary magazine? I’d start every venture taking inventory of all the ways in which I wasn’t qualified for the challenge put in front of me.

The one thing I truly know how to do, the one thing in which I have confidence is my ability to tell stories. Stories always start with a fixation–writers exorcise their obsessions–what gets them hot. A kind of primal attraction. Then there’s an outline for the three acts or movements, and the realization that although you may have an idea of where the story will go, it never goes where you intend it. The mark of a confident writer is the acceptance of the unknown, of all the factors that are beyond your control once you dive in and wade your way through your fixation. So I like to think of every new opportunity in the same light–I focus on the aspects I do know, the things I can control, and then I play it as it lays. I’ve also come to realize that failure is part of the process. There will be books you will write that will end up in the bin. There are projects you will take on that will be a disaster, and it’s important to separate your self-worth from what you do because who you are is not what you do.

It took me forever to realize that.

Image Credit: Gemma Correll

Image Credit: Gemma Correll

When someone says they’re an expert or a guru, I do this squinty thing with my eyes. Both imply there’s nothing left to learn, that one is now and only a teacher while I believe that everyone, regardless of age and tenure, is always a student. There’s always more to learn. A yoga teacher told me once that the mark of an advanced yogi is someone who repeatedly returns to the basics classes to re-visit and re-learn the foundation poses. After twenty years of practice, they swallow their ego and re-learn downward facing dog from the ground up.

I think I’ll always panic right before I start something new, whether it be a writing project or a project. However, what comforts me is that this feeling inevitably passes because like writing a book, I break down the story and tackle what I can, day by day. If you consider the whole the possibility of you being subsumed by it is greater than you saying, ok, today I will do this one thing. I break everything down to its component parts, and I’ll tackle each part knowing that I’m moving to the whole.

What also gives me comfort is the fact that I go into everything with the perspective of a student. At the moment, I’m bidding on a major brand project and I’m also downloading newsletter marketing tutorials and listening to podcasts about how to build Facebook ads. One would think that I’m at the point in my career where I’m passed the tactical. Yet, I don’t see it this way. I see it as coming back to the mat and re-learning my poses. I see it as always taking the role of the open and receptive student instead of the arrogant, closed teacher.

Top Image Credit: Pexels

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the things we carry: rape + late-life feminism

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But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

When I was college, I knew two women who had been raped. One Sunday morning we woke to news cameras on campus and tears. A girl I’d known only slightly had been followed home, brutally beaten and assaulted in the basement of the building in which she lived, while her passed out roommates and neighbors lie sleeping. She was coming from a night out with a friend, and her friend watched her walk home for as long as she could, for as long as she could see, and as soon as the woman disappeared a man approached her. He made small talk, and I remembered hearing this woman had been kind. Later, after the woman woke from her coma not realizing what had happened, couldn’t remember the rape, she did recall the man, being scared, and talking in the hope that he might walk away.

But he didn’t.

I remember hearing this story during the second semester of our senior year, and the first thing my roommates and I said — safe in the on-campus apartment complex, guarded by a lone man who often read the paper and waved by drunken college kids flashing their IDs — was thank god we didn’t go through with off-campus housing. The severity with which this woman had been attacked was unimaginable, so much so that we couldn’t say her name without lowering our voices to a whisper. Shuttering our eyes. Maybe thinking, Thank god it wasn’t me. But it could have been me. How many times have I… When the woman returned triumphantly to campus {my god, how did I not tell her then just how fucking brave she was}, the only thing I could say was that I was so sorry. Why is that I waited until this kind woman was raped to talk to her? And even then — a pithy I’m so sorry? Seriously, Felicia? The woman wanted to go with her life, drink with the rest of us during Spring Weekend and be sized for her cap and gown, and I remember a lot of us feeling horrible for what had happened but for some reason we couldn’t separate the woman from the rape. We held her at a remove, and sometimes I think about this — seventeen years later — and wish we weren’t cowards.

We’re told, for as long as we can remember, Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t attract attention. We’re told to travel in groups, to look out for one another, to call one another when we made it home to ensure we arrived in-tact, in one piece. We’re given rape whistles, emergency numbers to call, and in the 90s we purchased mace and pepper spray in record numbers. We’re told to hold our keys, look around, don’t walk down dark streets, take alternate routes, calculate the time from the subway to our home and also time the alternate routes. I thought of Tim O’Brien today because, in a way, it feels as if we are constantly strategizing; we are the victims of an endless, unseen and unspoken war, a war in which we know we’ll never be the victor. Instead, we cast our armor, we plot, we devise, we take self-defense classes and vary our routine — we live our lives in perpetual fear and constant defense.

You may shake your head as you’re reading this, you might even say that this is dramatic, that this is an extreme, but I ask you: How many times have you said, without thinking, Get home safe. It only occured to me last night that I say this all the time. It’s an accepted phrase, commonplace, and there’s nothing alarmist about the behavior until we pause for a moment and consider: Safe from what? From whom?

The second rape was tricky. During our freshman year my good friend told me about a rough night she’d had with her boyfriend. They’d be drinking and he forced himself on her. She told me she had said, stop. She told me she had said, No. And I remember shaking. I remember telling her that this was rape. There was no grey area {is there even a grey area? No.}. No confusion. No misunderstanding. She was raped by her boyfriend, and all our other friends told me to shut up.

Because this man was her boyfriend and boyfriends don’t rape their girlfriends.

I ignored them and became vigilant. I confronted him, drunk {not my finest hour}, in public, and called him a date rapist. He played the role of the victim beautifully, so much so that my friends {WOMEN} snapped at me, told me that I was making a fucking scene, and if my friend didn’t think it was an issue who was I, boyfriend-less, virgin Felicia, to “stir up the pot?”

How dare I?

Women shamed me into silence and I was a coward for caving. A semester later, my friend returned to the country from which she’d come, and the man found a girlfriend. It was as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I wish I would have been braver, said something, reported it, shouted louder.

Feminism came late for me. For three years I was one of the very few women working in an investment bank, and amidst the sea of boys and commonplace sexual harassment, women were relegated to two roles: whore and one of the boys. I was slated in the latter, subjected to their just kidding, wink, wink jokes and late nights at strip clubs and bosses who asked me whether I was a virgin, and if I was currently sleeping with anyone. I tacitly accepted this because I was the only woman. Why should I make a scene? How could I raise my voice? For years I worked for, and was mentored by, men {many of whom were great and brilliant and kind}, and I played into the misogyny, rolled my eyes and talked about crazy, dramatic women, and wouldn’t it be easier if I had worked with only men. So much less drama, you know.

I’m not going to talk about the confluence of events that attributed to my awakening, or subject matter with which I’ve found closure in my memoir, but here I am, 38, a loud and unapologetic feminist. A woman who has to endure an endless tirade of concerns after I booked a trip to India {You can’t go to India, they joked. You’ll get raped!}, to which I respond, quite plainly, Do you honestly believe I’m any safer here? A woman who knows a lot of insanely brilliant and beautiful women who DM me on Twitter because they’re afraid of being outspoken, they’re frightened {sadly, and rightly, so} of the consequences they’d face, personally and professionally, if they speak out against everyday sexism. If they talk about their everyday assaults. If they report their rapes. A woman who knows other women who won’t even touch these issues with a ten-foot pole because they have a fancy job in New York, they’re surrounded by great guys, and might even have an amazing, loving boyfriend, so how do these issues affect me again?

Make no mistake, we are not equal.

There’s that distance, that remove, that illusion of equality. I am a woman who actually told a bunch of appalled friends that a former boss who sometimes unbuttoned his shirt in front of me to tuck in his pants, didn’t mean anything by it. I am a woman amongst a sea of senior men who was forced to get a career coach because I had to “harden up,” and not be so emotional {read: compassionate and empathetic} in business. I am a woman who has to mentor other women because they need strong, feminist role models to believe in their self-worth, to speak out against injustice, to know that I’ve got their back. I am a woman who has to constantly think of escape routes, alternate routes, etc, when I walk home alone at night. That’s a lot, A LOT, to carry.

I don’t know what the end of the story is, or how I even arrived at this place, but I do know, and wish for for, this: a day when I can walk through this thicket, alone, without fear. It would be nice to go through it instead of photographing it.

Some recent, incredible reads: A Drop in the Ocean: #YesAllWomen Have Stories Like Mine, You Are Not Defined By Your Tragedy, and To Men Who Ask “What Can *I* Do to Fight Sexism and Misogyny?

books you need to be reading

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People often ask me about my time in Columbia’s MFA program: what workshop was like, and what about all those incredible teachers. However, mostly I grumble about student loan debt, my addiction that overshadowed a great first year in the program, and how my return had been marred by a new crop of writers, who were obsessive about technique and line writing. In retrospect, I was far too young, at 24, to walk into a program and have my writing ripped to shreds by complete strangers. I had no formal training, no sense of technique; I didn’t “publish,” I majored in finance and marketing in college, and I had just left an investment bank where I told my managing director that MFA wasn’t an acronym for Masters in Finance.

That first year, in 2000, was exhilarating, and scary, and unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I got into the program by writing a series of stories about my mother, and as I sat through scores of classes taught by famous teachers, it suddenly occurred to me that I was rough around the edges. I thought a story wasn’t a story until someone suffered or died. I mostly read the dead because that’s what I’d been exposed to all my life. I had no inkling for anything in contemporary literature.

I do remember the writer who called me that night in Long Island. Her name was Judy Budnitz, and I asked her several times during the course of our conversation whether this was a practical joke. No, she assured me, she had been on the committee that decided who would be admitted to Columbia, and she called me personally because she thought my work, while raw, had promise.

When I arrived, I was exposed to so many names it was dizzying at first. Everyone read more than I did. Everyone had subscriptions to The New Yorker and everyone wanted to get into Harper’s, The Paris Review, and Granta. As I breathed through the sheer terror of it all, the fear that I would be “found out,” that Judy Budnitz was wrong after all, I soon discovered a host of writers whose stories would remain, even after all these years. Even after all this time.

Judy is an extraordinary, magical writer. She reminds of Kelly Link, Borges, Jeanette Winterson, Steven Millhauser, and Barthelme, in the way that she’s able to create worlds we couldn’t imagine. Her stories are a mix of the fantastic, the illogical made sense, and the sublime. If you want to be transported read Nice Big American Baby, If I Told You Once, Flying Leap.

It would be reductive to say that Beth Nugent and Thisbe Nissen write coming of age stories, because what they create, the texture of their landscape, is so much more. A friend introduced me to both writers, and I was blown away by Nugent’s City of Boys, and how she can write about sex, love and power so violently yet so quietly. And I remember reading Thisbe Nissen’s Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night when I first visited San Francisco, and fell in love with her voice, how she managed to navigate a world where bandaids were repeatedly ripped off, when young girls and women experienced first loves and hurts. These are two authors you’ll want to hold onto, and much like me, curious if they’re still writing.

I discovered Deborah Levy later, but her hypnotic and strange novel, Swimming Home, of a family unraveling in the presence of a beautiful and dangerous interloper, is one you’ll ravage.

Sometimes I wish I was that twenty-four-year-old kid rediscovering books all over again. Feeling overwhelmed and excited by all the possibility. I’m trying to recreate that for myself now by walking into a bookstore and thumbing through the stacks in hope of discovering someone new. For now, I’m content with ordering novels from Elisa Albert, and hoping that Nicole Krauss comes out with a new book sometime soon.

hide the matches {new story, second dramatic revision}

Sunset / Woman

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve ever written, you may have noticed that I’m obsessed with time — keeping it, losing it — for its the one thing for which we truly have no dominion. I could say that my fixation of time is directly correlated to my fear of death (so traumatic that thinking about my final moments can easily send me into a real panic attack). Lately, I’ve been meditating on my obsession from a different perspective: the clarity and space that only time has the ability to afford you. And after a considerable amount of thought, I came to this: I’m writing some of the best work I’ve written in my life, but it’s difficult in form and structure, slippery (you can’t catch it, nor do I want you to), odd in my use of language, and dark. It’s not for a wide audience, and while this sort of notion — the sell-ability of a piece of writing — was once so important to me, I’ve come to realize this.

I could give two fucks if this collection doesn’t find a traditional publisher. I could care less if no more than 1,000 people read it. I have no more fucks to give for dumbing down prose and making life easier for the reader. I’m creating what excites me, what I think will excite you, and if you love it, AMAZING. If you hate it and give up, it’s been nice knowing you.

Bravery. Feeling assured. Scary, monstrous things, but I’m all in.

I originally wrote this story and published it on Medium, but after a few reads I found that there was a lot missing. So here, dear readers, is my latest.

Photo credit.

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be the body, not the bomb {new story}

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It’s been quiet in these parts because I’ve been writing, a lot. I’m starting to recognize that not all of my days are alike anymore, they’re no longer photocopies of one another, and the structure I once had has given way to meals at odd hours, conference calls, coffees (so many of them) and stretches of time spent writing. I have this gift of time, the one thing I can’t get back, ever, and wouldn’t it be a cruel thing to waste it worrying. Waste it without realizing that I’m writing (at least for me) the most exciting work in years.

For those of you following along, I’m writing a connected series of short stories all centered around the theme of hurt. Many of them have been collected here (amidst some of my non-fiction pieces), and I’m thrilled to explore topics that were previously verboten in my writing. I sometimes cringe at some of the coarseness of the language and characters, but for now I’m writing it all out. I’ll worry with editing, structure, and getting things right, later.

For now, enjoy this for your Friday. Cooking will commence this weekend!

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what would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?

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As Gloria Steinem observed, “Whoever has power takes over the noun–and the norm–while the less powerful get an adjective.” Since no one wants to be perceived as less powerful, a lot of women reject the gender identification and insist, “I don’t see myself as a woman; I see myself as a novelist/athlete/professional/fill-in-the-blank.” They are right to do so. No one wants her achievements modified. We all just want to be the noun. — Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Today I was reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, that I am a changed woman. Gone are the days of swallowing voice, of sitting on the fringe, of not settling for anything less than extraordinary.

In 1997, I was one of the very few women accepted into the Chase Global Bank program, an MBA in miniature. It was implicit that acceptance ensured you were recruited by the top investment banks –– Morgan, Goldman, Lehman. There were rumors on the Street that the Glass-Steagall Act would soon be repealed, and a merchant banking background was considered lucrative since future profitability was predicated on managing and understanding all phases of the deal process. While I found gender parity in college, where I majored in Finance and Marketing, the program was an old boys’ club –– you were rarely the girl they studied with; rather, you were the girl they slept with. This was a time when women had their choice of three colored suits: navy blue, black, or a very somber burgundy. Skirts always cut at the knee, hose were required, and makeup was kept to a minimum. One had to look the part of a lady without drawing too much attention to the fact that one was a lady.

All of these rules started to annoy me to no end.

From birth I was a woman who would never take no for an answer. A woman who would not bend to bias or bullshit. After the nine-month program came to a close, I graduated number three in a class of ninety, was recruited by Morgan Stanley, and won approval from the boys. Until I stepped into the WASP-y hallways of Morgan Stanley, where Managing Directors routinely slept with Associates and it was commonplace for a man to rest his hand on a woman’s thigh, inching up. Although I managed to artfully dodge sexual overtures (save the one time my belligerent, married boss asked for my virginity after a night of client entertainment), I felt protective of the women who didn’t want to make waves, who just wanted to blend in. Our generation of women banded together against the boys and the older women who seemed determined to press their expensive heels down on our heads. After threatening a coworker with genital mutilation should he inch his hand up another thigh, I was labeled the difficult one. The smart one with the big mouth. I lasted two years at Morgan before I would trash my suits, enroll in Columbia’s MFA program, and start a job at a burgeoning luxury goods dot.com.

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Whether I was working at a luxury company that went bust, a Fortune 500 cable giant, or a publishing mecca, men have always been my champions, while women were the ones to be feared. My whip-smart, ambitious, collaborative generation –– one that didn’t trade on their sex, dole out favors, or accept fingers inching up the thigh –– served as a threat to the old guard rather than a triumph. I repeatedly endured catty queen bees and ladies who rumor at lunch. Frustrated, I longed for a professional mentor who was maternal, smart, strong, and supportive. I wanted to learn from a woman who lead with confidence, who understood that one shines not because she desires to glare but because she allows others to ferret out her greatness. As I shifted into my thirties, I was determined to be this woman. Maybe it was because my mother was such a heartbreaking disappointment, but I felt a maternal instinct that was not one of procreation, but of cultivating and grooming strong, passionate young women in the workplace.

In 2010, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to manage 22 accounts and oversee a team of 19 women at social media marketing agency. To say that the challenge was overwhelming was an understatement, but perhaps the most gratifying part of my job –– beyond growing topline revenue, diversifying my portfolio, and implementing innovation and efficiency –– was the impact I had on a team of mostly millennial women. When it came to salary negotiation, I taught them to fight for what they deserved. While I encouraged them to bind together as a team, I also made them celebrate their individual strengths. From the straight-out-of-college associate to the seasoned director, every team member had a voice, and I taught them how to shout. I made them sit at the table. I told them they were equal to any man in the room.

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In 2011, when my two male bosses, my great champions, elevated me to partner status, there was a fever in the office. At the time, the agency employed a considerable amount of women, but I was the first to hold peer status in executive leadership; I now owned a percentage of the company. When my partnership was announced and I had to stand up and talk about my new role, my voice shook and my body was nerve-wracked. But then the thunderous applause. All the women I’d supported were my mentors; they buoyed me, proud that I’d earned this role because of my talent, ambition, confidence and compassion. When I look at my life, I can say with certainty that that day was one worth photographing. One worth remembering, always.

Recently I learned of a staggering statistic: 3% of executive positions in agencies are held by women. Hearing this coincided with my resignation, and as I made the rounds of catch-ups and lunches, some women joked, your leaving changes that number. Those words resonated with me over the past two months as I’ve been thinking about the things I carry. I think about my ability to see the world differently and write about it in the most magical of ways. I think about how I’ve been in a passionate, lifelong affair with food. And then I think about that day when I made partner, and I was proud that I had the power to lift other women up.

Today I spent the day with my best friend, a great woman with a heart that could blanket an ocean. A patient mother of two children, a devoted wife, a fantastic cook, a brilliant contract lawyer in a Fortune 500 company — she reminds me of our capacity to be fearless. Imagine what we could do if we knew we couldn’t fail? Some would have children, run a home, and find flexibility in a career they love. Others would break ranks and find their love in their work, their art, and in mentoring all of their adopted children in the office. Barefoot, we’d run through the garden at night. We’d get our feet wet; we’d tumble, we’d fall and skin our knees in the gloaming. But here’s the thing –– we’d get up and keep running. Keep at it until the sun stretches across the horizon.

Today my friend reminded me of the greatness in myself, and slowly my next chapter begins to write itself. I’m meant to lead. I’m meant to buoy great women. I’m meant to run, run, run wild.

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Chowing at Potlikker in Williamsburg + Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Noho.

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