Songs for the Struggling Artist

A Sort of, Kind of, Lesson

After I finished my novel, I put it aside for a year, as Zadie Smith advised. When I got the opportunity to pick it back up, I was stunned by the sheer volume of qualifiers I found in my work. It was full of sort ofs and kinds ofs, with a smattering of prettys, as in, it was pretty hot or sort of yellow and kind of thrilling.

I started to get frustrated with myself as I crossed out qualifier after qualifier. It made my protagonist sound extremely unsure of herself and it was hard to read. I think as I was writing it, I felt all these sort of kind ofs added to her humanity. I thought it made me feel closer to her as a woman: but it doesn’t read like that now.

Luckily, I have the opportunity to edit this stuff out, so the problem is easily remedied. But I do wonder if this writing tick might also be a vocal tic. Do I speak like this too?

I attended a workshop at which the instructor seemed to have almost no experience in either teaching or in talking about her work. I don’t know if that was really the case or it if was simply that she had the same vocal tic that I had in writing. Every other phrase was “sort of” or “kind of.” I found myself frustrated as I listen to her – but also sympathetic. There is cultural conditioning behind all the qualifiers in her speech. As a female choreographer, this instructor is in the minority in the dance world. It can be threatening when a woman is in charge and many times women will take on a persona of extremely soft leadership in order to bend around that threat. I have done it myself. And it drives me bonkers. Probably because it is something that I do.

Usually when we talk about these speech patterns, the solution comes down to something like that Bob Newhart Mad TV sketch, where, for every psychological problem he’s presented with, he just screams, “Stop it.” There a world of “Women need to be more confident” articles out there – the Confidence Gap, the Lean In, etc. But all of that fails to address why we feel it necessary to qualify our words in the first place. I think Soraya Chemaly comes close to it in her article  “10 Words That Every Girl Should Learn” that is, that we likely developed this habit of qualifying in order to find a way to be heard.

For example, if I say, “That was sexist,” I can be instantly pegged as a man-eating feminist, ready to burn my bra in the public square. If I say, “That was SORT OF sexist,” I might get away with it, especially if I say it with a cute quiet voice and a beguiling head tilt.

We are sort of kind of getting people to listen to us while we sort of kind of backpedal simultaneously. I’m trying to quit doing it but it does feel like surrendering a part of my femininity. Short declarative sentences are macho. Long qualified sentences are girly. I sometimes still want people to kind of sort of like me and to sort of kind of think of me as a nice woman.

But I’m at a time in my life in which I care less and less about fitting into a gender role and am now qualified to unqualify my shit. I’m getting to a place where I don’t care if people like it.  Sort of, Kind of, Pretty Much.


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1 Comment so far
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Very good, Emily! Certainly not gender exclusive. I’ve noticed such hesitancy in my own writing.

Comment by Bill Davis

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