One of the first assignments I had my students do this Summer was an activity on self-motivation. I wanted to know what fueled their little motors, in part because I wanted to help them drive themselves forward, and also because I have a Machiavellian desire to control every facet of how my class behaves. I am the NSA of freshman English.
My little tykes wrote about why they do what they do, and their answers were mostly pleasant. They hit the standard motivators: family, professional goals, wanting to break free of oppressive capitalist regimes. Standard stuff. Any time an activity like this comes up in class, I secretly hope someone would answer the same way I would. They usually don’t, but I can chalk that up to my students generally being well-rounded individuals and not self-destructive borderline sociopaths.
Amid all the positivity and potential for growth, not one student said they were driven by shame. I’m proud that they don’t hate themselves but a little concerned for their self-awareness. I feel like anyone who is adequately aware of themselves should spend at least some time on self-loathing. I understand wanting to improve to show family and friends how bright your star can shine or how high you can fly or how long your cliche can last, but haven’t these kids ever looked at their Google search history? Yeah, I want people to be proud of me, but I also want to not be the kind of person to google “wizard pug” more than once a week. My Master’s degree could be written in crayon by the build-a-bear company and my family would still be proud of me, but it takes real growth to change what you look for on the internet.
I think every writer should be caught in a paradoxical vortex of pride and shame: pride so they won’t be discouraged to continue, and shame so they will never feel content that they are good enough. I’ve had students ask to turn in their essays early because they think they’re done after the first draft. I laughed at one of these kids because I thought she was joking. Apparently “ha! Nah, there’s no way you’re done,” is something of a rude response to someone who is very confident in their writing prowess. A curvy, full-bodied B was also not the response she expected. This student was so sure of herself that she couldn’t entertain the idea that there was anything she could have done better. That’s like if someone stopped lifting weights because they can already pick up the dumbbells. When all the energy others reserve for confidence gets redirected to dissatisfaction, you never stop wanting to improve.
Every best friend who has ever had to be comforting has used the line “don’t beat yourself up,” but that’s not always the best advice. Sometimes it’s useful to be awful to yourself, to look at what you thought might be your best work and say “yeah, but I could probably do better.” Being pessimistic can be encouraging, and that’s the kind of oxymoron that will drive me into my grave knowing there was plenty I could have done better. I hope to die one day with a bitter frown on my face because I know my performance in life was generally lackluster.