I don’t remember who said it, except that it was a well-known writer. It flashed by one day as I was scrolling down my Twitter feed: “Don’t glamorize the struggle.” And I thought, yes, I know where that’s coming from. I understand that we should not glamorize the struggles of other people, or artists in general because they’re the ones who usually get glamorized. We should not say that poverty or addiction or mental illness make anyone a better or more authentic artist. And I agree with that.
But something in me rebelled just a little. It said, but if I didn’t glamorize my own struggle, where would I be? With just the struggle, that’s where. So what I want to say is, no, I would never glamorize anyone else’s struggle. But I do often see friends of mine who are writers and artists glamorizing their own struggles, and I think we’re allowed to do that. Because sometimes glamour is all we have, and while it doesn’t substitute for health insurance, it can in fact make the struggle easier to bear. We all get to have our own coping mechanisms, and glamour is one of mine.
What is glamour, anyway? I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the first definition is as follows:
“Magic, enchantment, spell; esp. in the phrase to cast the glamour over one.”
The very first reference listed is to the old English ballad “Johnny Faa,” about a countess who runs away with the gypsies: “As soon as they saw her well far’d face, They coost the glamer o’er her.” That reference dates back to 1794, but of course the ballad itself is much older. Johnny Faa casts a glamour over the countess so that she runs away with him, from her castle and count.
In 1830, Sir Walter Scott used the term in that sense, writing, “This species of Witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.” Sorry, I know, the gypsies are often referred to this way in English and European literature, and yes, it’s had terrible consequences historically. It’s not usually good to be associated with magic, or its little sister, glamour. It often leads to imprisonment or hanging.
Why do I call glamour magic’s little sister? Here is the second definition listed by the OED:
“A magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or object; a delusive or alluring charm.”
Glamour carries the connotation of fakery: it’s fictitious, delusive. True magic is the art of changing: if you turn into a hawk by magic, you are a hawk. Glamour is the art of seeming. If you turn into a hawk by glamour, you still can’t fly. It’s a false magic, or at least a lesser magic.
When we glamorize the struggle, we make it seem less hard, but of course really it’s not, right? Although Alfred, Lord Tennyson does write the following lines in Idylls of the King, published in 1859:
“That maiden in the tale, Whom Gwydion made by glamour out of flowers.”
And that was a true glamour, because Blodeuwedd really was made, and became a true woman. So glamour does have some sort of power. To be honest, I think it has significant power because glamour alters our perceptions, and our perceptions do in large part determine our reality, especially the reality of our struggle. Glamour won’t get us health insurance, but it will change how we feel about our lives, whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about them. And for me, honestly, that makes a huge difference.
So when I feel most in the struggle, when I feel most down, most filled with self-doubt, that’s exactly when I tend to glamorize the most. That’s when I put on a long, swooshy skirt and walk through the city as though I owned it: yes, all the streets and the trees and the leaves that have fallen. That’s when I start to tell a story about myself in which I do, indeed, glamorize the struggle. I remind myself that although I did just spend five hours grading undergraduate papers, and I have five more hours to go, I’m still a writer — even if I haven’t touched my manuscript in a week. Because if I didn’t have that, what would I have? Just the struggle. And honestly, without the glamour, without believing in the magic, I might give up the struggle. It’s so much easier to have a quiet, sensible life than to be an artist.
I’m particularly interested in the etymology of the word. Here’s what the OED tells us:
“Etymology: Originally Scots, introduced into the literary language by Scott. A corrupt form of grammar n.; for the sense compare gramarye n. (and French grimoire ), and for the form glomery n.”
A corrupt form of grammar? Grammar, seriously? As in, “That department of the study of a language which deals with its inflexional forms or other means of indicating the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage; usually including also the department which deals with the phonetic system of the language and the principles of its representation in writing. Often preceded by an adj. designating the language referred to, as in Latin, English, French grammar” (OED). That grammar?
In other words, glamour is related to writing. It’s a form of writing. A grimoire, you may remember, is “A magician’s manual for invoking demons, etc.” (OED). But the OED also says that it comes from the French grammaire, in other words, grammar. And gramarye is defined as either “Grammar; learning in general. Obs.” (OED) or ” Occult learning, magic, necromancy. Revived in literary use by Scott” (OED).
What do we learn from all this? Well first, that it’s all Scott’s fault. Which is a handy formula for pretty much anything: blame Sir Walter Scott. Second, that magic is and has always been intimately related to writing. To spell is both to create a word and to bespell, enchant. Writing is magic in that it alters our perception of realty, and so often perception is, let’s say, 70% of reality. (The other 70% is the part you can’t make go away, like hailstorms. But perception can change how you feel about hailstorms.) Third, that glamour is one of the tools of the writer, and I would say the artist in general. Glamour is actually the essence of what we do: we change not reality, but perception. We are spell-casters, all.
No wonder we glamorize the struggle.
I don’t have a clear answer as to whether or not we should. After all, Emily Dickinson’s and Vincent Van Gogh’s struggles were real and painful. And yet out of them came the most glorious art. What I do know is that I sometimes glamorize my own, and I think that’s all right. If I didn’t, I would be a lot less sane, and I would have a lot less fun. I wouldn’t walk through the city in a swooshy skirt, feeling like the heroine of my own novel, telling a story about myself as much as I tell a story about any of my other characters. I do think it’s important to be honest about the struggle, about how much sheer work goes into the making of art . . . which may or may not be good once you’re done. Which may or may not even be noticed. But it’s also all right, I think, to glamorize at least your own struggle every once in a while. If I didn’t, it would make the struggle so much more of a struggle, you see.
I chose this picture because it’s a very good example of glamorizing the struggle, taken on a day when I was tired and rather despondent because I’d been working so hard and not sleeping enough. After many hours of grading papers, I went out for some necessary grocery shopping and decide to take a short detour through the park. That’s where I took this picture, but as I’m sure you can tell, the underlying reality has been softened, sharpened, by an Instagram filter. And parts of the image have been cropped. The end result is me against dark the water of a forest pool, looking rather mysterious actually, when in reality I just looked tired. But the resulting picture makes me feel like a glamorous writer . . . which means I’m more likely to think of myself that way as well.