by Susan Woodring
I come from a family of reluctant apologizers. Somehow, though, I learned how. From a very early age, I apologized. I apologized throughout my growing up. I apologized all the time, for things that were my fault and things that weren’t my fault. Did I step on your toe? Gee, I’m sorry. Did I eat the last Oreo? Sorry. Am I too loud? Too quiet? Do I know too much? Too little? Did I speak up in class and say a dumb thing? Not answer a question I knew the answer to? Did I try to sit next to you at lunch, operating under the mistaken belief that we were friends? Really. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m so very sorry.
Scientists theorize that humans, the animal kingdom’s only blushers, do so to let their tribe know that they are aware of their mistake. Blushing says, “I messed up. I won’t do it again. Please don’t kill me.”
My apologizing was a kind of verbal blushing. It said, “I messed up. I won’t do it again. Please don’t kill me.” It also said, “I realize I don’t belong here.” Or, “Please allow me to make my existence more convenient for you.” Or, “I overreached, taking up too much space in this conversation/this classroom/this relationship/this planet. Please, allow me to make myself smaller.”
(Consequently, I’m also a blusher.)
Always, my apologizing said, “Please don’t kill me.” Please don’t banish me, rebuke me. Laugh at me. Don’t make me eat lunch by myself.
My apologizing was a preemptive measure. It said, “I am pointing out my own insignificance before anyone else has a chance to.”
When either of my parents was upset with me, it was always my first defense. I’m sorry. The habit—some might say compulsion—stayed with me in high school. As I made my first attempts at writing things for other people to read, I covered up my fear of not measuring up by apologizing for trying at all. I would turn in a piece of copy to my yearbook editor and tell her, “I’m sorry. It’s not very good.” When I stood up to read my report in eleventh grade American History, I said, “I couldn’t find much information on this.” (This was 1991, before the Internet, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The topic was gay marriage. Probably, I really couldn’t find much information.)
As I grew up, went to college, and began teaching and writing, my runaway apologizing continued. In my very first creative writing classes and throughout many of my MFA workshops, I blurted out a quick apology before anyone could say a word. Even though the rules of workshop go that the writer of the piece should keep her peace, I blurted it out every time. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Sometimes, the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. In the past eight years or so, since I’ve started sitting on the other side of the table, leading writing workshops myself, I have heard what it really sounds like, that kneejerk, at-the-beginning-of-the-workshop apology. It happens all the time, especially among beginning writers, and—it must be said—especially among female writers. I tell them right off, “Everyone is presenting their best efforts here. It’s okay if your best efforts haven’t taken the piece quite where it needs to be. In fact, it’s preferred—that’s the whole reason we’re here.” I also tell them, “No matter what, you must always be your work’s biggest advocate. Which means you have to believe in it, and I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“So,” I say, “You’re not allowed to apologize.”
It’s hard though, isn’t it? We will always be afraid it’s not good enough. (And, of course, it never will be good enough. This is the tragedy and magic—ooh, ooh, the possibilities!—of writing.) But apologizing doesn’t make the work better. It just makes the writer a little more afraid to try.
So, I’m learning with the writing—not-there-yet work is nothing to apologize for and certainly nothing to be ashamed of—but I still find myself recklessly apologizing for taking up space on this planet. I’ve done this in every major relationship in my life. For some people, confrontation can be invigorating, but for me, it’s terrifying. My apologizing is a means of protection, a way to head off conflict at the start. Whenever anyone is upset with me, I apologize, then wait for them to finish telling me what’s wrong with me. And then, I apologize again.
I realize this isn’t a fair way of looking at things, my seeing conflict as always being about the other person telling me what’s wrong with me (as they see it). Also, I know that my looking at it this way says more about me and my insecurities than about what the other person is actually saying.
The problem with this kind of flagrant, continuous apologizing—or, at least, one of the problems—is that it cheapens the whole deal. Recently, a friend rejected my apology. She said, “Don’t apologize. You don’t mean it.” She was speaking truthfully, not harshly. I, of course, apologized for apologizing.
There’s that famous line about apologizing from that old, sad movie. I think it was also in the book the movie was based on. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This, of course, is a lie. Love means saying you’re sorry when you’ve made a mistake, or hurt the other person. Of course it does. But, it must be a true apology and a true apology is perhaps the bravest thing. Telling the truth almost always requires courage.
But if we’re apologizing to escape conflict, to hide, then we’re misusing something that is truly sacred and important. Plus, it just doesn’t work. There is no hiding in this life. I mean, you can hide from a tiger or something, or a ravenous wolf or even, maybe, some kind of a catastrophic weather event, but you can’t hide from the kind of things you’re hiding from when you’re using an apology for cover. In this case, I can promise you, that whatever you’re hiding from—whatever fear or unhappiness or insecurity or lie—it will find you.
Recently, with that same friend, I found myself telling the truth about something that bothered me. This is something new I’m trying: telling the people in my life how I feel. She responded, not cruelly, but also not immediately telling me I was absolutely right and she understood completely, and I tried, for the briefest moment, to retreat. To take back the truth I’d just spoken. I said, “I’m sorry.” But I knew. I knew. “Wait. No, I’m not sorry. This is how I feel.”
And, do you know what happened? I was not banished or laughed at or rebuked or scorned. No one tried to kill me.
My friend nodded. She said, “Okay.”
Okay. Yes, that—Okay. We poured another glass of wine, sat out on the patio, and I—we—were okay.
Susan Woodring is the author of the novel, Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) and a short story collection, Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008). Her short fiction has appeared in The Cupboard, Passages North, turnrow, Literary Mama and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines. Her short fiction was shortlisted for Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 and Best American Short Stories 2010. Susan currently lives in the foothills of North Carolina where she writes and homeschools her two children.
Read All Columns by Susan Woodring
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- First Love
- I’m Sorry, But I’m Not Sorry
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