blather about how smart i am, my virgo-ness, and my inability to express myself

I am incredibly gifted at languages and linguistics. Not bragging, just saying. That’s my strong point. I can mimic the sounds of a foreign language after not much exposure. It only takes a little bit of partial or full immersion for me to start understanding the grammatical structure of a language, even if I don’t know any of the words. After four years of choir, a year of eighth-grade Latin, a semester of Portuguese, two and a half years of French, and many years of Spanish, I can recognize and “read” written languages, especially Germanic and Romance ones, competently enough. When I learn new words, I invariably pronounce them correctly. Languages are my strong point. We all have areas in which we excel, linguistic nuance happens to be one of mine.

So it’s interesting that last night I was writing a quick, informal review of a book on GoodReads, and I spent a great amount of time grasping for a word that I could literally see and hear, through some kind of curtain, in my head, but could not totally get out. I am very, very attached to my thesaurus, which is weird when you consider that I almost never need to look words up when I’m reading. I understand and remember the meaning of most English words, and I can look at them and probably tell you what language they come from, but I can’t call words up out of my head without a problem. And even though I can read a page of Spanish and be perfectly satisfied with the 80-100% I probably understood, I have a lot of difficulty translating word for word, and I absolutely hate it when people ask me “how do you say [blank] in Spanish?” because I cannot tell you, even if I previously spoke or read the word in question. I suppose my language skills are based on nuance, context, and intuition, not direct correlation. This is probably also why I don’t keep my languages separate in my brain, and why I don’t think I’ll ever be totally fluent in any of the languages I’ve studied, because they mix together. From growing up, my most comfortable way of talking about tropical fruit is to say the names in Portuguese, I use regionalisms and Spanglish slang, especially when talking about cultural or food things, I’m not funny except when I’m using Yiddish, and I adore learning new compound German nouns, because they are so damn good at expressing ideas.

But I still cannot remember words like “obfuscate” (last night’s word in question) when I need them, and even though I love my thesaurus and dictionary, they’re really not helpful, since the only way I could think of to express my need for that word last night was “to make more confusing or cloudy,” and thesauri don’t work that way. And, given that I am a writer and graduate student, and given that I appear often to be younger than I am, and given that I appear to be black, and all of those things color who I am and how I am perceived, I really worry about this lack of word-call-up ability. (There’s got to be a better term than “word-call-up”–help?) I feel that my blog posts especially don’t show me to be nearly as intelligent as I am, and I promise you, I’m well above average in traditional “intelligence” terms (IQ in the 130s, Ravens test 99th percentile, etc). I’m not trying to prove or disprove the validity of traditional intelligence, only to try and understand what bearing it has on my own life and my own opinions of what make me and other people interesting, valid, relevant, smart, worth listening to, talented, etc. Because I don’t seem to satisfy my own requirements for those things, and yet so-called “objective” tests, as well as my own experience with language, would seem to suggest that I am those things at the same time.

This morning I wanted to procrastinate my insane reading load for this week’s beginning of summer school, so I downloaded my “natal chart,” which is a 14-page reading based on my date, time, place, and year of birth. I have a secret interest in astrology, not because I read my horoscope every morning (I get three horoscopes emailed to me every morning–“regular,” Chinese, and singles and promptly forget them as soon as I read them), but because it brings up interesting questions of theology and psychology for me, and because self analysis is a hobby of mine. Those endless and typo-ridden 14 pages were full of mostly relevant insight, which I say both because it works if you want to believe it, but also because it said a lot of the same stuff that I say in my journal when I’m analyzing myself or recording my ideas, feelings, angst, etc. I have somewhat split personalities, I am moody (and diagnosed bipolar with OCD tendencies), I struggle to find balance in my life, I am obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge and ideas, I love working towards social justice, I have musical inclinations, etc. One of my favorite insights was that I have incredibly obsessive, thorough, and just plain good preventative healthcare regiments. One of the things that came up again and again (it’s divided into various astrological things I don’t totally understand, but basically it outlines what each various planetary alignment or whatever has to do with your personality) is that I am working towards a way of putting my mark on the world, and that my challenge is to do so while learning how to focus, since I am naturally inclined towards wanting to learn EVERYTHING (duh), and how to express myself in the best method that shows how smart and interested I am.

So there’s my problem. I don’t sound smart when I do express myself and my ideas, even though I know I am. I don’t remember big words, even when I understand them, and for the most part, I don’t care, because whatever words come most naturally, as long as they mean what I want them to, should be the best. This post itself is a great example of how I think fast, write fast, and don’t look back unless I feel like editing, which I don’t, except in the case of fiction and essays for school. I get word of the day emails, and they have as much influence on my as my horoscope and flash sale emails, and I read quickly and competently and with interest, but I’m never totally clear on what I’m most interested and how best to say it. Also, I would really like to spend my career just thinking and writing and reading and working on getting better at expressing the fruits of those activities, but I don’t know that that comes with a salary and benefits.


3 thoughts on “blather about how smart i am, my virgo-ness, and my inability to express myself

  1. Hannah,

    I don’t think the self-doubt comes just from being young and black. This passage from DFW’s commencement address has been very clarifying for me because I think it addresses the deeper roots of the problem:

    “Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

    I think we both get a tendency to get trapped in the last type of worship he mentions — worship of the intellect. And that breeds self-doubt.

    To reduce this self-doubt, I’ve found that it’s very helpful to shift focus from “being” to “doing.” We have no control, really, over how smart we are relative to other people, or how others perceive us. We have no control over the titles or names that people attach to us. So it’s better, I think, not to worry about that.

    Instead, I think we should focus our energy on the problems that we want to solve with our intelligence. After all, isn’t this what intelligence is for? As long as our primary focus are these problems — and not our personal involvement with them — then it doesn’t matter how big or small our contribution is. The opportunity to argue for a position in which one has firm conviction is enough to make the truly intellectual mind happy.

    This is, I think, one of the few ways to maintain sanity for over-active minds. Because no amount of intelligence will ever expel that self-doubt.


    • I miss having you around every Friday for perspective, Kunal! I still think about the conversation we had this winter, and I do think I’m making strides towards finding out what I want to do/change/become/influence, though i’m still getting too many ideas too often.

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