Musings + Essays

On Self-Reliance.

By: Jen Shoop

I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is no substitute for hard work. Inspiration, fortuitous timing, good connections come and go, so you must learn to be disciplined. My career has been one long lesson in self-reliance.” Afterwards, I wondered about this Puritanism, poked at its contours, prodded its provenance. Sometimes I think I was born this way, or that these values were cultivated at a young age. I was always a diligent student and, later, a determined employee. Assiduity and discipline were modeled and outright praised by my parents, and by their parents, too. I was also the eldest of four sisters, and I think my birth position shuttled me into Mother Hen mode, which entailed a kind of no-nonsense orderliness. When I was eight, I would pack my youngest sister snacks, books, and toys for Church. This was never requested or directed by my mother. It was one of the many ways in which I courted responsibility as a child. In advance of an outing in Colorado one summer when I was maybe ten years old, I prepared a ham sandwich for myself, placed it in a baggy, and deposited it in my color blocked fanny pack. Halfway up the hike, I paused to eat it, and the rest of my family looked on with bewildered envy at my forethought. These are not examples of “hard work,” exactly, but I think they get at its underlying pre-requisite: self-sufficiency. Beyond that, I was recognized for my academic performance from a young age, and the cycle of hard work followed by praise became addictive and self-defining. I was not an athlete, or an artist, or a musician — I was a high performing student. I earned every academic award on the dais as an elementary and middle school student and graduated valedictorian of my high school class. I was convinced even as a teenager that these achievements had nothing to do with my intelligence, and everything to do with my study habits. I squirmed when actual intellects debated, dissected texts, questioned historical perspectives. Most of my “opinions” were borrowed from elsewhere. But, man, I tested well. I could memorize pages of notes, long historical chronologies, mathematic equations. I learned to write to the teacher, not the subject — meaning, I listened to what they cared about and how they communicated, and then parroted those emphases back to them. In instruction, there is the notion of “teaching to the test,” and I was engaged in the student equivalent: “testing to the teacher.”

What do I think of all of this now? What was I doing? Was it worth the effort? Would I want my children to behave the same way?

I’m not sure. Certainly my professional career has proven the value — the necessity — of self-reliance time and time again, and I have always felt well-equipped to meet that requirement. I am wistful writing that down, though. It feels so tough, so skeptical of the world, and in general I believe myself to be an optimistic kind of person. I continue to believe that people will surprise you in beautiful ways if you let them. Perhaps this is less true in matters of business, though? Oy. It is difficult to imagine sitting my children down and telling them: “No one is looking out for you. You have to look out for yourself.” But that, for me, is a hard-earned truth in matters of business.

As I was ruminating on this, I came across an interesting poem by Marge Piercey, in which she writes:

“The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.”

Even if I were not a writer, I think her message is worth contemplation. She is getting at the self-reliance I have been talking about, but from a different approach. She implores us to find meaning in the work, criticism and praise be-damned. Work towards a center. Work as a center.

How do we feel about this, Magpies?

I find myself landing nowhere new or material, but these are the helter-skelter thoughts of a woman who has elsewhere wondered about the dotted lines between personal and professional life, and how we define ourselves in relation to our work, and how those demarcations blur if we have pursued a career in a creative field.

Opening this up for early morning thought on this fine Thursday.


+On pursuing English.

+I am not a numbers person.

+Do you think a background in the humanities in vastly different from one in STEM?

Shopping Break.

+A cozy and inexpensive lounge set.

+These are just the cutest kitchen towels ever. Weezie generously sent me a set and they are such a cheery addition!

+Alice Walk just relaunched this shirt — one of my favorites! The fit is perfect. The “tail hem” (in the back) is a bit longer, and I like the extra coverage but the ease of tucking it in in the front!

+Obsessed with this mini and this maxi.

+Such a pretty late summer dress. Also love the pattern in top form.

+Great acrylic drinkware for pool / outdoors.

+Hannah has some cute finds for littles — these dino sweatpants and this colorblocked sweatshirt are right up my son’s alley.

+I need this ladylike denim jacket!

+My key to organization. My entire life revolves around this book! I write down every reminder, event, to-do, objective, etc in it!



+Fun rainy day toy set for littles.

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9 thoughts on “On Self-Reliance.

  1. late to the party, but this is such an interesting topic; the poem truly gave me pause. I work with artists, and to me, it felt as if Marge Piercey was urging the reader (creator?) to work for the sake of work: because they can’t NOT do their work; fame, recognition, and compensation are secondary. It reminds me of the quote from artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post!

    1. I also found it arresting, and the Chuck Close quote is sitting with me this morning, making me think, too. I completely agree that a lot of my own work — even creative work, which occasionally feels directed by forces outside myself — has required discipline and a kind of plodding routine/commitment. A lot of the times, it’s just showing up at my desk and sitting down with a will to work.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Ham sandwiches — I love ham sandwiches. True glazed Smithfield, VA, ham sandwiches. And the heaven of Sunday morning breakfast, before church — country ham that my mom pan-steamed and plumped, pouring in a little coffee to make red eye gravy. A thin, slender gravy. A real Southern cook, my mom never made thick, clotting food.

    My dad would turn the radio on to gospel music that we listened to during breakfast, which is really ironic because we were all four atheists getting ready to go to the Methodist church. Did you know an 8 year old can be an atheist?

    Writing is generally tortuous for me — if I’m writing for actual readers. Sometimes I can stare down a period and demand it into place. Other times I fall down through a period, a dark, deep rabbit hole, and lose the writing altogether. Months later, I look at the few pages I created, add another period, and go back to straightening my desk.

    I have immense problems creating structure. At 59, recently divorced, after 28 years of marriage, (more phrases and phases), I’m afraid it’s a hope or effort long gone. Are any of you “older” and wondering where your hope lies?

  3. Ah, Jen! So much of what you write resonates with how I feel! I’m reminded of a quote I have written in the notes section on my phone (author unknown): “Measure your worth by dedication to your path, not by success or failure.” Similar to Marge Piercey’s words above, I understand this as an imperative to create for the sake of creating, to find meaning for oneself in the act. As a rule following perfectionist who spent years on the straight and narrow (hello law school) before I jumped ship, I have struggled with this concept. More often than not, the underlying fear of not knowing precisely what it is that I’m creating and concern over what others will think has left me paralyzed in the creative space. Ugh! Not what I want for myself and not the example I wish to set for my children. I am now slowly starting to carve out space for myself to create simply for the sake of it. No knowing exactly why, what it will become, what others will think, etc. But finding so much joy and fulfillment in the act, nonetheless. So much more to unpack over a glass of wine… xo

    1. I love this, Jaci – thank you so much for sharing that quote! It is challenging to walk a path without knowing the endpoint. Such a good reminder to live where my feet are, in matters both creative and personal.


  4. Beautiful writing as always. Thank you for provoking such reflective thinking on this Thursday morning. Love the story of the ham sandwich. I’ve always tried to instill in my children kindness and self sufficiency. So sweet the manner in which you cared for your sisters.

    Those Weezie towels are darling. Just wish the brand offered more affordability and flexibility with personalization. They were not able to accommodate my request to have a hand towel pair embroidered with different personalization. I wanted his/hers for our master bath. It prevented me from purchasing.

    1. Thank you so much, Anne. I admire the values you’ve set for your children, and the mindfulness you’ve clearly exercised in bringing them to bear.

      I hear you on the personalization limitations at Weezie! The his/hers would have been so cute!


    1. So interesting, Isabel. I recently read something similar, along the lines of “older sisters are the backbone of the family.” I can already see that we ask a lot of our daughter, and are actively stewarding her into being a caretaker for her little brother. She is so good at it already — a “lil mama.”


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