I sat in class last night, nervously stumbling over my words as I tried to read the story I’d only just finished polishing an hour before. I’m not good with reading in class, never have been. I still remember a moment in fourth grade when I flat out refused to read aloud in our advanced reading circle. Everyone could see the words on the page. Everyone knew I was a good reader, why did I have to say them out loud? I didn’t need everyone to see my hands shake and cheeks flush, to hear the stutter that only appears when I’m super nervous, drunk, or exhausted. Turns out, it’s a whole lot worse when the words I’m reading are my own.
For a long time, I resisted letting anyone else read my writing. Partially because the only things I was writing were my journals and terrible, moody teenage poetry. But even when I began to write more um…legitimate stories, I felt protective and—let’s face it—scared to open my tender first writerly steps up to criticism. And having worked in publishing and been the critic myself on a number of occasions, I dreaded running into another me who would tear my delicate baby to shreds, leaving my secret ambitions in a dumpster somewhere along the road where my gymnastics, medical, and law dreams had met the same fate. So each step I took down this road, opening my writing up to more people, I hesitated. Afraid that I’d be met with a wave of criticism, I grit my teeth and girded my heart for the inevitable crash, going over how I would weed through and find the valuable critiques without taking things too personally. But in nearly every case, the wave never came.
When I started this blog, I pored over every word that went into each post. Reading and rereading them to myself, writing well in advance of posting to make sure everything was perfect. The internet is full of trolls, I reasoned. But the trolls never came, never bothered me with hateful comments about my writing or anything else. Instead, I found a wildly supportive community that slowly built up my confidence for the next step…fiction writing. Cue thunder and dramatic music. First NaNo, then my first writing class, and each time again, the crash of criticism never came. Helpful advice about word choice, pacing, and structure sure. But my babies, no matter how deformed they were in their mother’s eyes, remained blissfully intact.
Somehow, I had this image in my head that “learning” to write—making the transition from amateurish scribbling to hard training for publication—would be like when I moved from the just for fun tumbling runs of my early gymnastics classes to competition prep. I had this horrible French coach that yelled at us in a thick accent, pointing out everything we did wrong and made me feel like everything I had learned in the preceding years was a mistake. My splits were not graceful enough, my handsprings were too short, toes never pointed, was I gymnast or a circus clown? When you move from the amateur to the big time, more is expected of you. Sometimes the foundation needs to be torn down before a beautiful monument can be built up. I couldn’t deal with the demolition when I was ten, but I was stronger now, ready to undergo the painful task of being made again, better.
Writers, I knew, had to develop a thick skin, deal with mountains of criticism and not take it personally. I was scared, but ready. Except that no one seemed interested in breaking down the foundation. Somehow it was assumed that the foundation was already pretty strong, or if it wasn’t, the answer wasn’t to break it down but to strengthen it with a mortar of confidence. Point out what’s good, then work on what needs to be changed. And so it was when I looked up expectantly from the page last night, ready for the chisels to begin their work, presenting what I felt was a pock-marked face for others to point out how and where I could make it smooth. But where I saw scars and mottling, they saw freckles and beauty marks. I still have a lot to learn. But what I’m learning isn’t at all what I expected.