I once went to a class led by an image consultant who told me to have my upper lipline straightened because one bow is very slightly higher than the other. He said it gave me a contemptuous expression. I was stunned, but didn't think he was lying. I just had never seen what others saw. Later when I wrote a long essay about young Elvis I was amazed to see in him the same slight defect, which lent him his famous "sneer," although the man was not known to have sneered at anyone, and on him it looked cool. I'm thinking of this because I met for the first time today the publicist hired by the publisher of Meet Me, and she seemed to have expected a difficult encounter. I have never understood why perfect strangers assume I am cold, exacting, demanding, and severe. Oh, I admit that my gaze is like a laser beam. But the publicist couldn't know that because we had never met.
Something precedes me, and I would say "It's my work," except that on the first day of classes I frighten students who have never read a word I have written, and anyway it isn't scary work. Smiling at students more -- cheaper than plastic surgery -- and putting the class's focus on them, not me, has fixed that. Back in undergrad days my writing did precede me: People would say, "That's you? I expected a big huge Amazon" -- but that was only on campus, and those days are long gone. Or it could be "my reputation" preceding me, except that other than having on numerous occasions given blunt and ill-considered opinions -- but never to students -- and maintaining an army of flying monkeys, I cannot imagine how I earned an intimidating reputation. I think of other writer/teachers who had scary reputations: Howard Nemerov appeared to enjoy making devastating remarks. You will never hear me saying to a young poet, "Son, the problem with you is, you have a tin ear." Others were known as curmudgeons, stoners, and lechers. I am none of those.
I think part of the problem may be that I am female and one bow of my lip is slightly higher than the other, and like almost every other educated female in America I will be acceptable only after I undergo plastic surgery, or, even better, go back into the kitchen where I belong.