My father taught me that to play with the big dogs, I had to be tougher than a man. So I developed a game face, and bottled up my emotions. Then, I snapped.
Early on, I learned that game faces were not my forte.
It was spring of eighth grade, at my school’s final concert. I sat on stage with the band, my alto sax in my lap while the principal announced the scholarships awarded each year to fund summer arts programs for gifted students. Among the scholarships was one for music. I knew I wouldn’t get it, though I was a good musician and singer. But my friend S___ was by far the school’s best musician, a talented flutist and a flawless coloratura. She was a shoe-in.
Instead, the award went to a sweet, bucket-eared boy who was a great artist and writer but not much of a musician. Not like S___. Not truly, shiningly gifted.
As the boy accepted his award to hearty applause, S___ sat clenching her flute across the stage from me. We stared at each other, our jaws ajar.
After the concert, my father took me aside. “Everyone in the audience could tell you were upset,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to control your emotions.”
I needed to develop a game face.
My father had a point. There was no reason to let the whole school see my dismay. It was an ungracious reaction, impolite and hurtful. But there was more to his admonition than that.
“To play with the big dogs, you can’t piss like a puppy.” That’s our family motto, at least for men. Men are tough, determined, strong. They don’t let anyone see them sweat. That’s why they’re big dogs. Women are puppies by default. They show the world when they’re hurting. They cry. In public.
For a woman to be a big dog, she has to fight harder than a man. She has to be like my father’s mother, who owned her own sweatshop where 25 Italian women sewed snow suit pieces that were shipped to factories to be assembled into finished products and sold around the world. Grandma Sartor always earned her own money. She was ambitious, manipulative, aggressive. She was also extremely feminine, handsome instead of beautiful, with a gorgeous figure, always exquisitely dressed, her nails done, hair coiffed, as if she wanted everyone to think she was just another puppy. Which she did. She wanted her appearance to deceive, so that people would underestimate her. Once they did, she would find a way to best them, then pay them back tenfold. She believed in grudges and revenge, the harsher the better.
She was a big dog, as big as a woman could get.
I wanted to be like her. I would play with the big dogs, not piss like a puppy; like a little girl.
So I tried not to let people see me sweat, to put on a determined, I’ll-get-you-next-time-motherfucker mask. To put on the face of a winner, a big dog.
A game face.
“Game face” is defined as “a neutral or serious facial expression, as displayed by a sports player or gambler.”
It’s difficult for me to keep a neutral expression, especially when I’m stressed. My emotions have always dwelled close to the surface, impatient to assert themselves. Serious is easier. Serious is close enough to angry or upset that I can approximate it, no matter what I’m feeling.
So serious and determined became the face I wore at school and work. I took nothing lightly. I strove to be the best at whatever I did. I hid my fear, my hurt or upset, or tried to. Too often I didn’t succeed. I would cry soundlessly in a bathroom stall or over-apologize when something went wrong, even when I wasn’t at fault. Then it would hit me, what a failure I was. What a puppy.
To circumvent failure, I decided that, at least when it came to school and work, I couldn’t show any emotions except those that fit my game face. So, in addition to serious and determined, some form of dignified happiness was OK. Anger was also acceptable, but only if it was controlled, used to get what I wanted.
I buried other emotions, buried them deep.
But they didn’t like being hidden away. It pissed them right off. So when they finally dug themselves out, they wreaked havoc.
I had my first breakdown in law school. I should have seen it coming. I was drowning from the very first week, when I called my sister during a Civil Procedures class and gasped out between sobs, “I don’t understand a word they’re saying, and I don’t care!”
I was a sculptor, a singer, a writer. What the fuck was I doing in law school?
Game face. Don’t let anyone see you sweat. Get a bad-ass, serious degree so you can play with the big dogs, be the biggest one of all.
Midway through my first year, I could barely drag myself out of bed to attend class. I started therapy and cried through entire sessions. Couldn’t my psychologist see what a failure I was? I couldn’t play in this league. I couldn’t be a big dog. I didn’t have the drive or the intellect. I didn’t have the face for it.
But big dogs don’t quit, so I finished law school, moved to Los Angeles, and became an entertainment lawyer. I glued my game face back on whenever it came unstuck, which was often.
Throughout my legal career—which lasted eight full-time years and several more part-time years—I experienced periodic breakdowns of confidence, of game face, where I beat myself up for being unable to maintain my composure in this world of rigid rules and posturing; periods where I couldn’t eat and got painfully thin. I developed cystic acne that ravaged my face and back, bouts of IBS and insomnia and panic attacks. The law just didn’t fit. It made me a more rigorous thinker, it made me a stronger, better advocate for those I respected and admired and whose goals I understood and believed in. But it didn’t come naturally. My whole body rebelled against it.
The longer I practiced law, the more my game face changed from serious to neutral—and not because I wanted it to. Neutral was how I felt about the issues I dealt with on a daily basis. What did it matter if the world’s highest paid actor used a luxury tour bus meant for months-long road trips for his dressing room, or that the same actor wanted the studio to pay for his private jet to fly him around instead of using a commercial airline. Really, that’s what we were arguing about? Tell the fucker no and move on. Or give it to him.
I didn’t care. I was numb.
I finally gave up on law. It was either that or become an emotionless husk of a woman, single, alone, albeit successful and with a killer game face.
Instead, I attended graduate school for creative writing, a world where writers, male and female, compared notes on ass-in-the-chair time and shared advice about therapists and antidepressants and anti-anxieties. My colleagues laughed until they cried; they got angry and anxious and overjoyed and scared. They wore their emotions like badges of honor, not just on their faces, but all over their writing, their gorgeous, glorious, exceptional stories and novels.
Men and women.
We still wore game faces sometimes. We feigned indifference when we talked about getting book deals and garnering success in the cutthroat world of publishing. We didn’t care about all that, we pretended; we cared only about the work. Though when one of our professors told us she’d rather we lose a mediocre bestseller manuscript in a cab and publish a quiet, superb gem of a book that sold poorly, we rolled our eyes and told each other we wanted it all: The literary genius bestselling book.
We postured. We preened. We pretended. We dreamed.
That’s game face too.
Game face, I discovered, could take many forms. It could show a whole range of emotions. And it didn’t have to be worn 24/7. There was a world outside of the one I had decided to pursue when I was a kid, a world where emotion had its place.
I’ve worked hard since then to embrace my emotions without allowing them to overwhelm me. To develop and hone my more expressive graduate school game face with all its pretty colors.
I still need a game face. Our family motto has its embedded truths. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to broadcast everything I’m feeling. I don’t want to be that ungracious little girl who couldn’t hide her outrage onstage.
Sometimes I need to present a calm face, or a happy face, or an unconcerned one, especially to my kid when I’m worried about paying the bills (which is often) or when I’m frustrated and sad about the fissures that have formed in my family since my mother died. My son is too young to bear witness to those burdens. He deserves to be shielded from them until he’s older.
I also know, however, that I need to drop my game face as often as possible and let my son see my full range of emotions, so he knows emotions are good things and he can learn to express them in a productive, healthy way.
And my characters, they need me to be emotional too. If I constantly wear a game face, no matter how modified, my characters suffer, because if emotion doesn’t enter into my calculus, it can’t enter theirs either. And then they’re flat, expressionless. Boring. Sorry, lady, they’ll tell me, we’re gonna find somewhere else to play.
My ability to feel empathy, to cry when sad; to show confusion when I don’t understand something; to ask questions, pursue their answers with the curiosity and intensity of someone who wants to learn and grow. All of those faces, all of those emotions, are good ones to wear. They’re necessary. They’re part of who I am as a person and as a writer. They’re what make me a writer.
So it’s time to reinterpret the family motto. It’s time to say: I can cry, laugh, sing, yell, and cry some more, whether at work, at home, or on the page.
I can express it all and still play with the big dogs.
Colette Sartor writes and teaches in Los Angeles. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review Online, Carve, Club Mid at Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Hello Giggles, and elsewhere. Find her at colettesartor.com and on Twitter.