Elizabeth Day: Should I be ashamed of celebrating success?

So, I have a book out. Unlike my previous books, which have been novels sprung from the warped figments of an overactive imagination, this one is a memoir. This time, I’ve mined my own life for material. I write about marriage and divorce, friendships and dating, trying and failing to have babies, being rubbish at tennis and the time my parents sent me to live in Russia for a month as a 13-year-old (and yes, this actually happened).

I’ve done interviews to promote it. I’ve been asked about my life over and over in different ways. I’ve answered questions with a series of anecdotes which become ever more neatly packaged in the retelling, even though quite often the subject of the anecdote (grief, miscarriage, divorce) is messy and difficult and has taken years to process. It’s a weird feeling. It makes you feel slightly detached from yourself.

Elizabeth Day
Jenny Brough

On social media, I have been posting about the memoir’s trajectory – from something that existed only in my head to a solid object with a neon cover and a window display in a bookshop at Waterloo station. I’ve been excited, because I know from hard-won experience that not all books get the attention they deserve.

After a couple of weeks of this, I woke up one morning feeling unsettled. My stomach churned with an anxiety I couldn’t at first locate. After a while I realised it sprang from a disquiet that I’d been showing off. Was I being arrogant posting about these moments of personal and professional joy? Was I causing unanticipated upset to others who might be experiencing difficult moments in their own life? Had all this selling of myself resulted in a diminishment of who I actually was?

It reminded me of the time late last year when I went to a wedding where a woman I’d met once before drunkenly told me she had stopped following me on Instagram because I was ‘too much’.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I immediately replied, accepting all implied blame.

‘Do not apologise,’ said my friend Chloe, who had witnessed the exchange. ‘That was so rude!’

Chloe is the definition of an alpha female: a kickass barrister who is also ranked in the top 300 for CrossFit in the country for her age group. She was right, of course, but I couldn’t brush it off.

For weeks afterwards, I worried about being ‘too much’. It was the same feeling I had publishing a memoir because, really, what right did I have to write about this stuff as if my life merited attention?

Then it struck me: what I was feeling wasn’t overexposure or embarrassment, it was shame. Shame that I had given voice to female experience. Shame that I had rejoiced in the good things that were happening to me. Shame that I hadn’t sought permission from… well… I don’t know. Just from someone bigger than me. I wasn’t born with this shame. It’s something I’ve learnt. It’s what history teaches women to feel when we speak our truth. It’s the result, I think, of centuries where women’s stories have been marginalised and where the rest of society has been conditioned to believe the best kind of female is quiet, pliant and gratefully meek. We are told, in essence, that the perfect woman is the one who doesn’t take up too much space.

But, actually, I have an absolute right to tell my story. How other people respond to it is their business. I am allowed to claim a space and celebrate success, because I know that success is ephemeral and that I have worked hard for it. That’s not called being ‘too much’. That’s called being enough.

This Week I’m…

Watching

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s, an unexpectedly affecting tale of a 13-year-old boy finding himself through skateboarding.

Wearing

Asceno silk pyjamas: so comfortable – and so beautiful that when I wore them to dinner no one batted an eyelid.

Listening

To actress Tracy Ann Oberman’s riveting new podcast about her experience of online bullying and how to stand up to it.