Learning to Feel Powerful

Meg Wolitzer on figuring out how to feel strong without a security blanket.

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The first time I ever felt powerful, I was five years old and had a mouthful of magnets. I had seen an older kid in the neighborhood wearing braces, and for some misguided reason I decided that if I, too, wore braces, I would be special and metallic and, somehow, powerful. So I took a handful of small magnets from my toy box and stuffed them into my mouth and proudly went up to my mother, saying in a garbled voice, "Look, look, braces!" She told me to spit them out right away, afraid that I would swallow them.

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Fade to my next childhood power moment. It was first grade, and my teacher called me up to her desk to have me dictate stories to her, which she wrote down far more quickly and neatly than my handwriting (which was generally billboard-sized) would allow. I remember standing at her desk free-associating a long, winding story about a child astronaut while she recorded it all with a very sharp No. 2 Ticonderoga. I stared at that pencil as it ran so rapidly and thrillingly across the page.

That same year, I was eating cherry cheesecake in a suburban diner with my father, and I took note of the woman sitting behind the cash register, which happened to be up a couple of steps, so that she seemed practically monarchical as she looked down upon everyone in the room.

"That's what I want to do for a job," I told my father.

"What?" he asked, looking up from his Sanka.

"What she does." I pointed to the cashier, imagining a life spent behind the shiny curved hump of a cash register. What authority I would wield; what small, individually wrapped toothpicks in a basket I would offer to all who appeared before me.

Children are generally on a dedicated quest for power. They stew in their powerlessness, being told what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear. (That denim jumper with the many little buckles? My mother's choice, not mine.) Looking back on some of the moments when I felt a ripple or outright surge of power — whether these were moments of fantasy or ones that were grounded in actual accomplishment — I see that what they all had in common was the significant presence of equipment, props, things. It's as if kids innately understand that because they're small and untried and don't get much say, they need things around to help fortify them, perhaps filling their mouths with metal and their heads with excitement or even grandiosity.

Another power moment came when I was eight. I posed for a photograph holding a guitar and pretending to be a male teen idol. I honestly do look cute and androgynous in the photo; my hair is in my eyes, as if I were posing for Tiger Beat magazine ("In this issue: Meg's fave foods — and hint, one of them is chocolate!"), and my hand is poised over the strings of the guitar, as if I knew how to play.

Meg's new book will be released next spring.

But the only person in our house who played the guitar was my mother, whose specialty was The Joan Baez Songbook. Sometimes, from my bedroom at night, I could hear her in the living room, fingerpicking as she sang: "The water is wide … I cannot get o'er." My own fantasy of power, at least according to that photo of me, involved being not Joan Baez but a hot young boy playing the Westbury Music Fair (perhaps along with his slightly less photogenic brothers). The teen idol holding his guitar in mid-laugh, as if he were sharing a private joke with his fans, seemed more exciting at the time than the grave melancholy I saw in Joan Baez, at least as channeled by my nearly-40-year-old mother.

Then, inevitably, I got a taste of a darker kind of power. In seventh grade, I very briefly fell in with a (relatively) "bad" crowd. They were consistently mean to everyone, and yet sitting among them at the table for the week we spent together, I felt a kind of ambivalent, cruel, reflected power. In that short time, our shared lunch table became my equipment, my prop. (My tenure with them ended after one of them sent me a note that read "You'd better give me a surprise party, you bitch" and the lunch lady intercepted it.)

I was thinking about all of this recently, having just completed a new novel, The Female Persuasion, that tries to examine ideas about power, in particular female power. My protagonist, a shy young woman who becomes the protégée of a powerful older one, is frustrated by her own inability to ask for what she needs, the way so many people around her seem to be able to do. As she gets older, she wonders what it will take to make her feel she has the right to assert herself and feel strong.

For me, leaving childhood and growing older, the moments that resembled power started to come more frequently and easily. They happened when I felt I was most like myself: when I was lost in writing, when I was deeply reading a book I loved, when I was giving a lecture. (Even when I was playing the guitar, which I finally learned to do, and Joan Baez songs were part of my repertoire.) The power I felt then came from mastery, and any objects that happened to be in my midst didn't feel as consequential.

But I did experience an exception to this recently. In January at the Women's March in DC, there were all those signs, and of course all those pink hats. When you master something, you may not need objects front and center; you feel like you already have everything you need. But when you're part of a common fight, a common urgency, you need all the help you can get. Our hats were objects, symbols, shields, and they remain inextricable from everyone's memory of that day. Things, when they're needed, resonate. Every once in a while, even now, I can occasionally still taste a metallic trace of magnets in my mouth.   

Meg Wolitzer is a novelist whose books include The Interestings and The Wife. She recently edited The Best American Short Stories 2017.

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