already smart enough, without even trying

This piece is a part of my Little Victories series. 

I don’t know the names of the parts of grammar. I remember “prepositional phrase” from this big purple book I had growing up. I remember that there are articles that can be definite and indefinite, but I can’t remember which one is “the” and which one is “a.” And it’s been embarrassing for a long time, but not embarrassing enough to google.

There are all of these things I should probably know that I don’t, and I sort of wish I knew them, and I’m hoping no one will call me out on them, but I’m not exactly making an effort to learn them. Instead, I’m making mac and cheese. Instead, I’m writing the way I would talk if I was better at talking. And for the first time in a long time, I am OK with that. It’s a good sign—I think it means that there’s always hope. Unless it means that my inquisitiveness has curled up and died in a corner somewhere and I will be the counterexample in a future New York Times article about how intellectually active people can stave off Alzheimer’s.


No. It’s progress. It took me a long time to let myself feel smart enough, without making a huge effort to sound smarter. I am just now reaching the stage where I can make occasional small talk in an elevator without the evil voice in my head snarling, “Say something witty, you pathetic nitwit! Yes, the dog is shaggy and cute, but doubtless everyone makes that obvious observation. DISTINGUISH YOURSELF.”

(The voice in my head is like the British butler in movies about how Americans think England used to be, except he’s become unhinged and he’s about to kill everyone.)

My mom made an effort to teach me grammar. I recited “behind, beneath, before, on, in” and whatever else. But it didn’t stick. I was building a lean-to in the woods, and I got good at latticing the branches and packing the gaps with moss and leaves. I practiced sketching faces almost every day and finally I could make their eyes gleam and give them realistic expressions.  I was learning lots of things. People are always learning lots of things.


When I went to college, I brought my skintight purple t-shirt that said “Homeschoolers Learn Everywhere” on it, but I only wore it a couple times, in defiance or irony, depending on who was looking at me in the dining hall. I knew things were different now, obviously, and I was going to have to learn a whole dictionary of new definitions.

And then I felt really smart, anyway, because my professors gave me A’s on all of my papers. Because even though I couldn’t deconstruct any of my own sentences, I had read a million books and written several very bad fantasy novels, and I loved to write. Which made me look smart. And I wanted very much to look smart, especially after my music education teacher told the class that I couldn’t participate because I’d been homeschooled, so I wouldn’t understand. Especially after I realized that the girls in college were sexy in a way I didn’t know how to replicate, and that sexy and smart were the two basic options. Especially because I’d always thought I was smart before that, so I had to keep it up in a recognizable way, even though it had nothing to do with sketching faces now.

(I also refused to wear Uggs, which severely limited my potential for coolness. source)

And then I felt stupid, in grad school, because it was theoretical and philosophical suddenly, and I didn’t know how to do that very well.

In grad school, my closest friend was a girl who always sounded smarter than me. My brain was like an old dog, panting behind her sleek, runner brain. She was a runner, too, and I couldn’t jog around the block without contemplating the nearness of death. She was whip-thin, whip-sharp, dark-humored and socially awkward, and she was writing a dissertation about a concept I still couldn’t really understand, after she explained it three times over dinner. Sometimes she told a joke and the punchline was in German. Sometimes it was in French.

I was embarrassed that I only spoke English and could only read Spanish when it was a few words on a subway ad, and could only pronounce Hebrew, without ever understanding what I was singing, even though I knew a lot of prayers.

I felt like there were holes in my mind and stuff was always spilling out. I felt shaky. I felt inadequate. I was always pretending to know more than I knew. I was always trying to use bigger words than I was comfortable with. I was always trying to leave my interpretations open for interpretation, so that brighter people could assume I was cleverer than I was. I left ellipses after the points I raised, so that at least I might sound like I was still thinking, still working it out.

I don’t know exactly when I stopped. I don’t remember why. I’d already been writing on the internet for a while. Maybe enough people called me stupid. Maybe enough people called me smart. Maybe I’d just lived a little longer. My brilliant friend disappeared, without a word. My new friends had large vocabularies that they used to describe hooking up with a lame guy who told them they weren’t kinky enough, asking for a raise, feeling inadequate.

Sometimes I have coffee with a girl who’s still in college, or who has just graduated, and she talks the way I used to talk. She is probably already smarter than me, but she is anxious. She is trying so hard to slip classical Greek references into her analysis of the dessert menu.  She is making me aware of all of the books she’s recently read and they are all by French thinkers whose job title is really “thinker.”

(some days I’d rather sculpt it than be it. source)

Sometimes I can’t help it, I catch myself using smaller words, for fun. I swear casually, for emphasis, I make silly jokes. God, it’s refreshing, not to try so hard anymore.

The other day I read this piece about body image by a professor at an elite college. She was talking about self-esteem and peer pressure and the way beauty is constructed. But her points were buried under heavy, academic terminology. I had to read everything three times, and then I got bored and stopped. In grad school, we debated this technique, the art of obscuring the point, the manipulation of the reader. The writer, we said, is purposefully drawing attention to the problem of language. Language is a cumbersome, obfuscating tool, and the writer is exposing its complicated nature. We argued about how meaning is made. We went sword to sword, dueling across the seminar table over whether writing is always commentary on writing even as the subject is commentary on something else.

I think there is a place for these debates. I am not opposed to grad school and seminar tables and French thinkers and big words and deconstruction and those deep dives into the web of narrow tunnels and caves under every sentence. But I’m so relieved to finally feel fine about not being that kind of diver.

I am glad that I can write a piece about my little boobs or my big nose or the time when I stopped eating or the time when I began to boldly order dessert, and I can say big things about beauty and the way the world works and I can say little things just for fun and the whole time I don’t have to think about whether or not I sound smart enough. Instead, I can think about whether or not I am making any sense. And whether or not I am communicating well. And whether or not I like the words that I’ve put on the page.

I feel generous, accepting my brain with all its slippery surfaces and the holes that things fall through. I can end a sentence on a preposition and just keep on going. It’s liberating. Who knows how many other errors I make, every moment? Probably a lot, and it probably doesn’t matter.

I am going to be awkward in the elevator. Maybe it’s just an awkward place for a conversation.

I am going to sometimes surprise myself by saying something really funny.

I am going to sketch some faces again, because I learned a lot of interesting things that way.

I am going to get better at being the person I already am, if I just let myself be that person for a while. 

Whether or not I sound smart enough is not the point. I am already smart. The point is how I use it.

*   *   *

Do you catch yourself trying hard to sound smarter?

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in the old sweaters my mom saved in the attic even though I’d forgotten about them. It’s like getting hand-me-downs from myself!

Cake pics from a reader named Heather. I can’t help but immediately love this couple:

32 Responses to “already smart enough, without even trying”

  1. Sarah S responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Well, I think you’re brilliant, Kate, for what it’s worth. Academic impenetrability is no match for you combination of intelligence and authenticity. :)

  2. Sarah S responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:15 pm #


    Ha, ha! Speaking of trying to sound smart…

  3. lik_11 responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Yes! Although I cannot deconstruct a sentence- my Mom blessed me with an expansive vocabulary. I love using rare words, that other people may not know- but can glean the meaning from the context. I do NOT like to overcomplicate sentences or phrases, just to be obtuse, though. I strongly believe that language is meant to convey thoughts and meanings- so why make it difficult for someone to understand what you are trying to say?
    Kate- you’re fantastic, smart, honest and weird. All things I respect and look for in a friend!

    Heather- your pictures are amazing- congratulations!

  4. Erin responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Sometimes I really, REALLY dislike the smart-people talk. It is ruthless and unstoppable in science. These PhD’s (not ALL PhD’s… just the ones with the PhD complex. Disklike.) love to feel smart, so they fill their manuscripts up with words that you have to take and look up in a dictionary, even though what they’re talking about/explaining/discussing, is a really simple concept. I think half of my literature review for my thesis is deciphering basic rules of the outdoor world that you learn in 8th grade environmental science… just in really confusing jargon. Ugh!

  5. Victoria responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Since most of my day involves talking either in English (my first language) to children (who have only been speaking English for about 5 months as their second language) or in German (my second language), I’m very aware of my vocabulary. In both languages I need to use smaller, simpler words. In English because my girls don’t understand or need the big words (though I’m always amazed at what they do understand) and in German because I don’t know the fun words. I’d love to use some of my vocabulary and it frustrates me sometimes but the vocabulary that I can’t use right now isn’t the “I read Kant and Nietzsche” level; it’s the “I would have sworn I just had my towel two seconds ago” instead of “I thought I had my towel”.

  6. Stephanie responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Wow! You hit the nail on the head. Most of your posts, about physical appearance, are hard for me to connect with. I’ve never much cared about my appearance, probably because I grew up in small midwest towns and have only lived in towns where nobody cared that much about the coastal ideals of beauty. But this post….!!!!!

    I’ve spent soooo much of my life feeling inferior to others who somehow managed to sound smarter than me, or put down something I said as being stupid (even if they never actually called me stupid). To me, being smart was the equivalent of being thin or beautiful. And if I wasn’t the smartest, then I wasn’t good enough. It took me years, more years than you, to realize that I didn’t always have to be the smartest person. Actually, I think I’m still learning that lesson, because while I can relax about the words I choose, I HATE HATE HATE to be wrong about something. So when I’m not sure about a subject, I just plain don’t talk about it. I don’t want anyone to call me out on my ignorance. And it’s ridiculous that I need other people’s approval of my intellect, because “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Maybe someday I will actually believe that… I’m turning 35 this year so at least I still have plenty of time, but I really don’t want to waste any more time worrying about what others think of me!

  7. Katherine responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    I was homeschooled; I graduated from Columbia; I have body/eating issues; I love your writing and this post is brilliant. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Potatobunny responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    I think you’ve perfectly captured how I’ve been feeling the past month, thousands of miles away from home taking baby steps into a masters programme (a thought that sometimes still terrifies me). I am incredibly lucky that most of the people around me are nice and not-snooty, and so so so incredibly relieved that none of them play the one-upmanship game in conversations just to sound smart. I suppose we still use jargon, but among peers and professors, I’ve yet to meet anyone who deliberately tries to sound smart, and I think it really underlines the point that you can have intelligent conversations while using simple, commonplace, to-the-point words.

  9. Kate responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Interesting! Sometimes I notice that when I’m trying to communicate with someone who is just beginning to learn English or speaks broken English, I start using complicated words and constructions automatically. I don’t know why and when I try to think how to simplify, it feels really complicated!

    I’ve always wanted to speak another language fluently, because it sounds so so fascinating. I love people’s descriptions of their new perspective, and how the world suddenly has another dimension. Maybe one day you’ll have to teach me how to say basic things in German!

  10. Kate responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    @Sarah S
    Thank you!!
    And as for typos, I catch them ALL the time in emails I’ve already sent. Actually, I’d sent one to Heather, thanking her for the cake pics, and when I was retrieving them today, to publish, I saw what I’d written and was like “Should I be really embarrassed?” I decided it wasn’t worth it. She probably understands :-)

  11. Kate responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    Why haven’t we hung out yet? Are you living in NYC?

  12. Rachel responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    I think I’ve been in the academy long enough now that I can say with confidence that obscure writing isn’t the sign of complex subject matter, it’s the sign of a poor writer. I don’t know what things are like in the arts, but in science I have to wade through piles and piles of dry, complex, poorly written papers. Now and then, though, I’ll run across someone who is able to write about the most complicated subject clearly and even elegantly (and then I cite all of their work forever). Sometimes the problem really is mine because I haven’t learned the particular jargon of some sub-field, but more often it’s the fault of the author. We’re supposed to try to write for a wider audience than just our seven pigeon-holed research buddies. You’re a lovely writer.

    PS. “The” is definite. “An” is indefinite because if I say, “Pass me an apple!” I could mean any old apple–it’s undefined.

  13. Abby responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    This is really interesting to read, because I’m in college right now, and I tend to do the exact opposite.

    Especially coming in as a theater and music major (which I’ve heard and/or had implied isn’t as hard or as intellectual as other majors), I got to college and everyone just seemed so much smarter. All of my high schoolness just seemed out of place and…silly. Everyone was so decisive, and I could never decide what I wanted or what I was even doing here.

    So I started making fun of my stupidity, saying things like, “I’m not that smart, but…” or “Don’t take my word for it, but…” before I said a sentence. I still do it sometimes, but I’m trying to stop. I won an academic scholarship to school. One day when I was walking with my friends, we all smelled flowers and I was able to identify what the smell was and what bush it was coming from (lilacs). I have a vast knowledge of strange animal reproduction. I can recite two Shakespearean monologues and a sonnet. And now I can tell you what types of musical intervals there are and how to use them in counterpoint for music theory.

    All of these are different types of knowledge, but it’s knowledge that I have that makes me and my brain unique. And it’s hard to reconcile that with all the smart people around me, but I’m trying.

    (P.S. I am probably one of those college girls who uses big words…but that’s just because I love the way they sound and sometimes they just sound so much prettier than regular old words.)

  14. San D responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    I often get emails from people who use language that makes me say “who talks this way?”, or “I have never heard that person ever ever use that word”, as if they had a thesaurus in their hand and took their normal conversational voice, and changed up the words to make them sound smart. What they sound is stupid. If the message is important, so is the voice, and the more authetic the better. Yours rings very true.

  15. San D responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    “authentic” ooopsy

  16. claire responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    just another breathtaking blog, from that great person who does not realize her ability. I am afraid to comment because I feel you could grade me.

  17. Kate responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    @San D
    Thank you! Means a lot, coming from you!

  18. Kate responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    Grandma! Stop being silly! I don’t believe in grades :-)

  19. SolariC responded on 15 Oct 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    I went through the same transformation after college, where I suddenly realized I didn’t have to use the biggest word I could think of for any given situation. It’s been nice, slowly relaxing into myself, and not worrying about impressing people or fitting into the college atmosphere anymore.

    Also, in defense of short words, they have enormous power. Plus, a lot of them have Anglo-Saxon roots, and much as I love Latin, I think it’s great to pay tribute the real heart of English in our daily speech.

    Anyway, thank you for the post! It’s nice to know that other people besides myself are rejoicing in the post-college confidence of being simple and straightforward.

  20. Karen responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 4:17 am #

    Oh yes, sentence analysis. I was horrible at it in my native language Dutch and then I got to college and had to learn all the names (denominators? What?) in English. That was a joy…
    I never really felt like I had to sound smarter than I was but I do know that the language I use now is different from the language I used then. I just read back part of my dissertation and gah, I sounded like the anthropology version of one of the Big Bang Theory guys. So odd. I completely don’t identify anymore…

  21. Lizzie responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 5:22 am #

    I have never, ever, learned to analyze a sentence. Even when I was studying Latin, and asked to pick out specific things, I just took a wild guess. And it was fine. I still don’t really understand some basic punctuation either (the apostrophe? Are we still using those?) and I’ve accepted it. Almost.

    I do still find myself trying to sound smarter, especially around some people, and then weirdly feel a little bit ashamed. I know I’m smart, and the people who count know I’m smart, what am I trying to prove?

    I hope I’ll grow out of it.

  22. Sheryl responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 8:29 am #

    I came to the conclusion long ago that grammar is great for learning a language, and that jargon is important when you’re conversing in a specific field about field related subjects. I’ve decided that knowing how to speak colloquially and express myself in a more casual setting is way more important. It’s great that I can express complex ideas and theories about them, but I’d rather be able to talk about every day things and life in general with the people around me.

  23. Person responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    I was also a music major (and an English major in addition) and felt this way. Among the performance majors and also English majors, I felt not as smart and not as talented and constantly felt hesitant to play or say something without it being 100-percent perfect or being 100-percent certain.

    Looking back on it 10 years later, I kick myself for not speaking up and putting myself out there. Maybe it would have led to more friendships, or better gigs. Or maybe I would’ve made a fool out of myself.

  24. Sara responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    It took me a long time to ease out of the I-must-impress-everyone-with-my-vocabulary-and-DEEPTHOUGHTS after I graduated college. Honestly it just got to be too much effort to maintain, and frankly I wanted to watch some bad reality tv without feeling like I betrayed my diploma. I got a degree in natural sciences and spent much less time with grammar than I did training my computer to recognize words like isostatic and gyre, but still had to ease out of continually slipping them into everyday conversation. (and how silly, “Oh what a pretty valley!” “I know, isn’t the tallus weathering beautiful?” Past self, you were just being a pain, you were not being cool by intentionally trying to make the other person ask for a definition)

    Also, this: I found it at my library and thought of you, hopefully it’s enjoyable!

  25. Kate responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    Aw, looks adorable and clever!

  26. Rebekah responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    You know what? There are tons of different ways to be smart. I think we focus on words because most of us who cast about on online blogs are pretty verbal. Even your example of diagramming sentences is verbal. But my brother, who barely graduated high school, can look at any tile and calculate the angle he needs to cut to get it on your floor looking great. My aunt reads medical research for fun and has a Ph.D in geology, but has never been able to hold down a steady job. My car mechanic can find an elusive and intermittent rattle in the middle of my engine block and repair it for $10. Turgid (I love using that word) language is just a sign of our own insecurity. Sure, we’re smart. No, we’re not the smartest person. That’s ok. Just like it’s ok if we’re not the thinnest or the most beautiful. I always appreciate speaking to people who are smart, because they have something fun and interesting to say. Often times, though, that person is my brother.

  27. Kande responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I do not sound at all, even remotely, intelligent when I speak. Except for the odd occassion where I get so riled and passionate ( not in the sexy way, in the emotions-running-high-way, lol) that I speak without speaking. In rare occassions in those already rare occassions I can sound like a God-damn genius! But usually it is the opposite … I am horrible at impromptu speeches in particular.

    But when I write, that is when my intelligence seems to shine through ( maybe this post is a poor example, but there are always exceptions to every rule ;) Anyway, I don’t know what it is – as could be due to writing allowing one to reflect on their words and make changes as needed before exposing the final product for the world to see … but usually I find I, like you, write like I am in a conversation and thoughts freely flow. Then I re-read what I wrote and think ” Damn, that sounds good! Look how smart I am!” And then I seek out my husband and try to tell him what I just wrote, without using it for reference, but just to report verbally what I had literally just thought and typed out. As an ego boost, which quickly becomes humility and embarrassment as just as quickly as they had arrived when writing, my language skills evaporate when speaking – and I give up and slink away.

    If debates could be held purely through the written word, I could totally be the next POTUS! Well, that and if I was an American. If verbal debates were needed for each job application, I would be unemployed for life!

  28. Kande responded on 16 Oct 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    *speak without thinking. Not speak without speaking! What a party trick that would be!*

  29. Eat the Damn Cake » low on the hope scale, but climbing responded on 17 Oct 2012 at 5:00 am #

    [...] anything, I wanted to prove that I was smart enough for Harvard. Recently, it occurred to me that I’m not so concerned with being that kind of smart anymore. And now I want to be this famous writer. It’s always something, isn’t [...]

  30. Heather responded on 18 Oct 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    “I felt like there were holes in my mind and stuff was always spilling out. I felt shaky. I felt inadequate.”<— i relate to this!

    also, thank you so much for posting my cake eating photos! i didn't think you would use them so quickly. i tried to think back to the email you sent me, and nothing struck me as oddly worded or anything, so don't worry :)

  31. Lola responded on 19 Oct 2012 at 10:05 am #

    OMG, I absolutely love you! Your honesty and transparency are amazing. Sometimes the most amazing thing in this world is transparency; especially in this world where everyone wants to seem like they have it together. It makes connections and kinship so much easier.

    I feel like your me! Which makes me a narcissist, but so what.

    I’m currently in graduate school and dealing with a lot of the stuff you describe. The ideas are interesting, but sometimes you want to be like “Say it plain!! Don’t try to sound smarter by mucking up the language!” I love your ability not to let these feelings mess up who you are / make you ashamed of what you know. I’m still trying to work through that (becoming). And awkwardness: you’re a goddess for admitting that. I think this world makes it so hard to like yourself sometimes. BUT in the end, you just have to accept the images that people expect you to be (graceful, coherent, etc.) and just be you regardless.

    “I am going to get better at being the person I already am, if I just let myself be that person for a while.”

    I don’t usually post online, but had to. Thanks!!!

  32. Eat the Damn Cake » the only ones not laughing at a comedy show responded on 12 Nov 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    [...] it too much to ask, I wondered from the depths of my overeducated priggishness, that comedians try to point out sexism instead of just being sexist? Or comment on [...]