Friday, May 6, 2011

On the Benefits of Harsh Criticism and Tough Love: One Writer's Path Toward Recovery

By Kendra Tuthill

Let’s start here: there are no benefits.

I am a recovering writer. There, I’ve said it.

On my 21st birthday, I read Catcher in the Rye. I had run away from home and skipped out on school, so this was my first exposure to Salinger. Naturally, like most teenagers, although I wasn’t one anymore, the book astounded me, but not for its literary importance. It blew me away because suddenly I felt, “I can do this!” I started writing my first novel that day. A few months later, I brought it to Bob, a writing instructor from the community college I attended four years earlier.

Though I’m sure he doesn’t recall it, when I was eighteen, I submitted my first short story to his Creative Writing course. It was an end-of-civilization piece called “I Feel Fine,” about a young man named Paul who had a sort-of life-mentor named Louis. In the story, Paul has a dream about the planet as a living, breathing thing and he watches as it’s covered with pavement. Soon, he finds himself inside this gigantic ball that he simply cannot breathe without, only to find that it, too, is being paved over. He’s suffocating. He wakes from the dream. He’s in a corn field. He runs back to Louis, tells him of the dream. Paul is crying; he feels he’s realized the true end to life on planet Earth and needs to stop it from happening. He asks for advice and the advice given: write a story about it.

Okay, it was a cheesy ending, but it was my first story, ever. My instructor had a very neat way of running his workshops and I still feel to this day that he’s come up with the most beneficial structure out there, although it has some natural and unavoidable flaws. Each student submits a piece at his own will, when he’s ready to submit it. Then Bob makes copies, taking off the names of the writers, turns these into a fat book and each reader gets a copy. During the class critique, no one knows who wrote it. So, as the writer, you cannot convince yourself that the harsh criticism or even the amazing praise you receive is a result of your awful or absolutely winning personality.

Well-aware that the authors are anonymous to us, but not to the instructor, as Bob begins the critique we have the tendency to see it his way. We love the teacher, yearn for his approval. We want to be agreeable little writing disciples. Suddenly the poem we read last night and didn’t get seems not so bad after all. Or we realize that the story we read and thought was so fucking awesome really does have a lot of flaws in it.

As I said, that was the first story I had ever completed. I had written it and re-written it several times before handing it in. I was eighteen years old.

And this story was ripped apart. The critique was a horror show. I wasn’t given useful information as to how to become a better writer, or how to make it a better story. If I was, I certainly couldn’t hear it. Instead, through tone of voice, and intentional mis-readings of the work, all I could understand was that I had no business writing at all, that I was stupid, even, for tarnishing the community college literati with my dumb ideas and lack of skills.

I held my breath, my face hot from embarrassment and left crying. It wasn’t just the story that was torn, but my entire idea of the future had been ripped from my grip. I didn’t have any amazing drawing skills, never felt myself to be particularly good at anything other than daydreaming and thinking. I grew up in a family that had some money, although they were rather conservative about that fact, but it was blood money as far as I was concerned –Daddy War-Bucks money. (My father is in the business of engineering smart bombs –an oxymoron, in my mind.) So, I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps. As a child, I wanted to be a singer. Music was the only thing I really cared about. I had a tape-recorder I seem to remember carrying with me everywhere. I recorded myself singing so I could learn to be better at it. I pushed it against the television speakers to record songs from MTV and my favorite film at the time, Grease II, so I could memorize the songs and sing along. I made mixed tapes. I could listen to the radio all day long and be completely happy –singing in the kitchen or the car. Every song that came on, I knew the lyrics to and could recognize within a note. Apparently, I had the habit at the beginning of each one to scream out, “Oh, this is my favorite song! Turn it up!” “Every song is your favorite,” my mother told me. Anything I did, I could do it happily so long as I did it singing. I wrote songs on my Casio keyboard (the best birthday gift ever). In school, for career day I dressed the way I thought rock stars dressed. My favorite question to answer was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My family and I would go on long trips up to New York or Michigan and sitting in the backseat, it was impossible to bore myself. First, I had my walkman, of course, that I sang along with, of course. But when my mother would tell me to stop, finally, I would pick a subject to think about and run with the daydream for the next six hours. When it wasn’t, “What would I bring if I could only bring one thing to a deserted island?” (a walkman, obviously) it was, “What will life be like when I’m a rock star?”

At the age of ten, my mother sat me down for a serious talk. I couldn’t “carry a tune with a wheel barrow,” she said, and that I had to quit it, just quit thinking about it, talking about it, singing about it. She couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get serious. I had to think of other careers.

I remember bursting into tears and running outside, then, too. I don’t know where I planned on going, but I just wanted to run. Instead, my brother caught me as I raced across the yard. “Mom said I’m not allowed to be a rock star!” I cried out, punching at his chest to let me go. He said he agreed with my mother. Remember when he gave up playing the drums? When you get older, you just have to.

Crushed is barely the word for it. In her tough love, her harsh criticism, she ripped the world from me, literally disallowed me to sing in the kitchen anymore, along with other musical activities I loved to do. And the dream went through a horrendously long abortion. It was a dream that didn’t want to let go, that wanted to dream itself into existence, but was now met with major resistance –not just my mother, but now my own self-criticism. What I had learned, really, was that I had no business singing. I simply was not one of the greats. I was not special enough.

My mother told me that being able to sing was a gift, and it was a gift that God had not given me. From there, the only thing she ever said I was good at was writing.

Since then, I have only tried singing in front of an audience once. Tried. Key word. I couldn’t make it through the song. My knees shook until I had to be given a chair to sit in. I propped my foot on another chair and my guitar in my lap. I was so nervous, so sure that I could not sing, that I kicked the chair over and off the stage. And I haven’t tried since.

According to my mother I was very “bright,” and a “good little writer.” It’s no wonder to me at all why I chose to write. Had she told me I was a “good little singer,” a good big singer is what I might be today.

So, after Bob’s class, I could not think of myself as a writer anymore. I remember thinking over and over –“You were wrong, Mom! I am not a good writer! I was not given the gift.” And now what the hell was I supposed to do? Other than obsessing over music, I spent my youth writing. I just never wanted to be a writer. Seemed boring to me. Since the age of seven, I had written in diaries, nearly every day and, most likely, about how I was going to be a famous singer one day. (Damn, I would love to see those now.)

I didn’t just leave class crying. I left the college all together. Hell, I left the state. I wrote in a journal each day as was my habit, but the writing dream, which had replaced the singing dream (because I felt it had been more practical and actually kind of fun) was gone –until that Catcher in the Rye moment.

Of course, I had absolutely no concept that this book took Salinger ten years to write just to make Holden sound incredibly immature, so the idea that, “hey, I could do that,” is wonderfully funny to me now. But, I finally returned to Virginia, to Bob’s class, with my new novel in hand, to see if maybe now, maybe now he would see I had that gift. Maybe he accidentally overlooked it before?

I gave it to him. That night, I wrote him an email asking for it back. He refused. We wrote back and forth until two in the morning. I begged him not to read it, not to show it to the class. They were going to laugh at me, pick me apart. He continued to refuse, as he wrote, because he had already read it and it was great work.

Ah, man! The fear, the excitement! The approval I had always wanted! For the next four years, I barely slept four hours a night. I was going to be a writer! A real writer! I seemed to get praise everywhere I went. I read every book on writing I could find. I studied the classics. It’s like I was on speed, really. I learned what was good writing and what was bad writing (and with time, was the first to point out the difference). In my writing classes, I now served as the second teacher, my teacher’s right-hand-writer. I started a ‘zine –it was actually widely read, and a website forum on writing. I studied grammar. I critiqued stories. Friends asked me, me, for references for some job they wanted, some university they wanted to get into, some competition they wanted to win. My stories made people cry and laugh. Ryan Adams read one and told me he wanted to read more, wanted it to be a novel! A tv show producer wanted my stories. I was invited to a dinner with Beth Henley. I was introduced to Toni Morrison. I wrote two more novels. I won awards. I wrote, directed and produced a film. I wrote plays that won competitions. I got a scholarship! I graduated with Honors and was admitted to the George Mason MFA program. Hell fucking yeah!

I had some successes. Despite the list above, I would not allow myself to believe that even one of those successes was truly great. The truth of the matter was that I still believed I didn’t have the gift, but through hard work, I had skirted around God’s laws of bestowment. I was like the Olympic swimmer born without legs. Maybe I would have to work five times as hard, but if Bob said I could do it, then hell, I could do it and I would. Because I carried this perspective with me, not one success sent me over that edge into thinking I was hot shit. Underneath it all, I still held onto this idea that the ability to write was a gift and I was not gifted. The truth of the matter was that I had fooled everybody into thinking I was good at this. For example, I wrote four novels, but for fear of being rejected, none of them was sent to agents or publishers. My film was ambitious (and the first one I had ever made in my life) and the only film festival review of it was pretty awful to tell you the truth. The awards, well, now –how many people really entered those contests –really? Ten? Twenty? And the MFA program, well, I mean, didn’t the professors already know me? So what if only fourteen students a year are accepted out of the four hundred applicants. The professors knew me. They showed preferential treatment.

In long, self-destructive bouts, I erroneously convinced myself of all of the above.

Bob has a brother, a twin brother. Not metaphorically, for real. While I am dying to give you his name, I won’t. Whether he deserves to be exposed as a critic and not an artist, I’m not sure. For all I know, he too has since made his way down the recovery path. I don’t want to be unfair, despite the unfairness I experienced.

Here is a summary of my experience in the MFA program. In one class, I was told that writing could not be taught, that it could only be intuited. I thought to myself, quite angrily, “then fucking intuit how to teach the class,” and “what the hell am I paying ten grand a year for then?” In another class, where I met Alexis, I tore apart a piece of his writing so horrifically he has told me he could barely write an email after my critique. The next semester, I took a novel writing class. Despite my harsh criticisms of other writers’ grammar or story development, I still, as mentioned, did not think of myself as a great writer. I never did, never have. What had happened is that I had become nervous. I had taught myself how to fix stories, how to critique them and in the process had scared myself out of actually writing them. Hell, I could find a flaw in anything! Give me Hemingway. Give me Toni Morrison. I don’t care who –I will find a typo. I will find a mistake. You can only imagine, on the inside, what I was doing to myself. Even so, accidentally, and without my awareness, I had given a certain professor, the one whose name I am not mentioning, the impression that I thought I was amaaaaazing.

And one day, he aimed to prove me wrong. (After seven years of contemplation, this is the only excuse I have for him.)

The novel was called So Long, Jefferson Carl Moody. It was a truly complicated piece for me to write. The writing of it involved a good deal of research, and it was written in an omniscient POV, something I had never tried to do until then. In the story, there’s a twelve-year-old girl who finds herself outside a New York City subway station only to take a walk in an uncertain direction and end up at a carnival. From there, she works with the carnies, turns into a con artist, travels all around the country, and becomes a “slave” to a woman named Hag who she believes is her mother…until three years later when she sees her face on a milk carton. She realizes she has been living someone else’s life, not hers. In fact, she had been missing all those years. In the crowd of the subway station, she had lost her mother and her memory. Greatly influenced by the works of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison and TC Boyle, it was a colorful, adventurous piece about broken identities, about realities replacing one another and delusions we hold in order to protect ourselves from the truth. I had nervously re-written that first fifty-page chapter seventeen times from beginning to end. In the class, we were allowed to hand in up to fifty pages. Shaking, unsure, I handed it in and waited two weeks for my class critique.

Fifty pages of shit? Fifty pages of this fucking shit,” my professor said, as he walked into the room. He threw (quite literally) my novel on the table, the pages flittering about, as if he didn’t want to even touch it. Then he opened it up, read out random lines mocking them with a childish tone. He said, “we don’t write children’s books.” (It was clearly not a children’s book –but even if it had been, who the hell is “we?”) He said that “Toni Morrison is a fad,” that “post-modernism is post-sensical.” “And what about this?” he would begin again, ripping apart another section, sometimes hitting the page with the back of his hand in disgust. Alexis, I remember, pointed out a paragraph he liked –the only student willing to speak up, and our professor’s response was, “Yeah, well, but still. It’s not bad, but…” and he went on to prove to us (as he set out to do), that I had no business writing books.

The paragraph above took maybe a minute to read. The critique lasted maybe an hour. The…okay, I’ll say it…trauma, lasted nearly seven years. Just as Alexis had trouble writing an email because of my criticism, I had months to prepare for my best friend’s wedding speech and when the time came, I could not get out a single sentence. Everything I wrote was stupid. It was shit. I was so fucking stupid for ever thinking I could be a writer. I quit the MFA program, and left for another state. Now, I couldn’t even write a journal entry, not even one that would never be seen by anyone but me. I’m trying to interview T.C. Boyle and Laurie Anderson and nothing comes out right. My father said to me one day, “Isn’t it about time you gave up this writing thing?”

For the first two years after that fateful critique, every morning I woke jumping out of bed with my hands to my head –fifty pages of shit? Fifty pages of this fucking shit? I had to go to a doctor to get rid of the nightmares. I couldn’t hold it together. I’d lie on the floor of my Portland studio apartment with a knife in my hand recruiting the guts to stab it through my chest.

Not knowing what else to do with myself, I got into another MA program for fiction writing and decided I would go –but I wouldn’t listen, just go to the classes, get the degree, and don’t listen. I was afraid it would kill me. One class was a novel-writing class where I know for a fact that I received a good deal of praise –I know it intellectually, I have red-ink evidence, but what did it matter? I wasn’t listening. I involved myself in theatre, simply because if I failed at it, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to be a playwright. After I received my degree, I gave up writing completely in order to become a trucker.

I had some things to think about.

For example, the difference between an artist and a critic, a subject brought up to me by my former roommate and now a published novelist, Vanessa Veselka (Zazen. Red Lemonade). The critic, she would tell me, is just a “scared artist.” When we lived together, I had such a fear that she would sniff me out –that I no longer knew how to be an artist –I was just a scared one, a critic. The only thing I was good at anymore was finding mistakes. And I was so terrified of making mistakes that I could no longer write.

In order to be on this path of recovery, I have had to forget everything. Forget that I wanted to write. Forget how to spell ellipses (spellchecker did that one for me). I had to allow myself to write emails and press send without editing them first. I’ve had to give myself permission to fill this blog with wases and bes and thats and hads and woulds and plenty of adverbs. I had to be okay with giving new friends the impression that I couldn’t put a sentence together. One new friend, before I began this path to recovery even once called me, “you know, sort of slow.” (I laugh at that now. Slow, not exactly. Timid, definitely.) I had to let writers talk to me as if I had no idea how to write, had never written a story in my life, had never been in an MFA program for that very thing. I even had to re-learn how to speak. So afraid I had been that I would use a word incorrectly or form a grammatically incorrect sentence that, over the years, I developed stage fright, even in the company of just a single person. I watched “bad” movies, wrote novels in my head –full novels, that I would never write. I dreamt up another life for myself, one with babies and marriage and a house made out of found objects. If someone asked me what I did, I never answered, “I’m a writer.” No, I was a “trucker.” After awhile, I realized that I was holding a secret, a secret that ballooned inside me. All the guys at the terminal and the truck stops, they all thought I was a trucker. They really believed me! But I was an imposter. The truth: I was a writer pretending to be a trucker.

But, finally, I was not a critic pretending to be a writer.

And pretending to be a dumb-witted truck driver was one of the best things I could ever do for myself. I didn’t put pen to paper for a full year. I only read kids’ books. As a reader for Our Stories, for the first time ever the most important question I asked myself about a piece was, “Yeah, but was it interesting? Was it passionate? Moving? Did it flow?” Spelling, grammar, omitting the wases, the writer will figure out. Writing is risky. Did the writer take the risk or hold back?

Susan Shreve, the professor who said, “Writing cannot be taught,” and that it could only be intuited, was half-right. (If I had listened, I would be 30,000 dollars richer right now.) However, after being involved in this art form for fourteen years, I can tell you that to be a writer or a singer, a painter, a filmmaker –whatever you want to be, does not require some heavenly gift bestowed to some and not to others. Writing can be taught. It’s taught in the form of rules and guidelines and, too often, in the form of “this shows good taste in literature, and that, bad taste.”

What cannot be taught are fearlessness and passion. Fearlessness and passion drive the intuition. Without them, your stories careen off the page. If you want to write, all you need to have is the desire and a pen and the ability to dream. To write is to dream, is to know how to have fun. If you write to impress, you may just do so, but in the process you lose the dream. By dream, I don’t mean your goal to be rich and famous for doing something you love to do. By dream, I mean “the imagination,” that expansive space where anything can happen, where stories and paintings take root. The imagination will be replaced with the fear of seeming stupid and childish –but the imagination is childish. When you decide to write to impress or to avoid criticism, and not to have fun, one day you’ll find you have run out of “good” ideas. You’ve stopped trusting your passion and have started to write with your intellect. You have become so critical that you have killed your babies before they’ve had the chance to be born. You become afraid of being silly, of tarnishing that serious and all-so-important world with your art, and for that reason your amazing, blow-you-away work will never see the light of day.

I no longer want to be a serious artist. I am proud to say that the idea of being a serious artist bores the hell out of me. To be a serious artist is to replace the fun –the fun you had singing in the kitchen or building a fort or putting on a play for your neighbors – with a degree or a review or a paycheck that says you can do something that you know, quite clearly, you most certainly cannot do anymore.

Make the art first. Do the work afterwards. And, for crying out loud, when you’re done, send it off and let others relive the joyful experience you had creating it.

As Julia Cameron says in her book (which greatly inspired this blog), The Artist’s Way, being a recovering artist is much like being a recovering alcoholic. Going to the bar with all your old bar-friends only results in relapse. They’ll tell you that you’re wrong for being silly and fun and not critiquing yourself and others to death. Their perspectives will hold certain gravity, as you’ve held them yourself for so long. It’s familiar and easy and, ultimately, self-destructive. While recovering, you must protect yourself. Stay away from the workshops until you can definitively say, “I’ve come here for another perspective on the work itself, not to find out whether I am truly cut out to be a writer.” If you go to the bar or the workshop or the coffee shop too early, their tactics of trying-to-convince-you-to-stop-following-a-dream-because-they-have may actually convince you. In this case, the alcoholics represent the critics, those who will, as Cameron writes, sit you down and give you well-meaning, practical advice on why you shouldn’t have fun, why you shouldn’t sing or write or paint. They’ll hand their fears on to you in the form of –“you know, getting published is highly unlikely,” and “you’ll never make money at it,” and “no one will listen to you unless you have an MFA or an agent.” You may be tempted to believe them. For this reason, I have recently chosen to stay away from other critics posing as artists. They no longer love to write, they only long to be known as great writers. They don’t want to write novels, they want to have written novels. I won’t even go near a coffee shop if I risk the chance of an acquaintance asking, “so, what’r ya workin’ on?”

As my friend Vanessa says, I’ll only share my work with people who like to read.

I’ve taken off a month in order to dream. The dream is a secret that comes in the form of a film script, a novel and a children’s book. I’ve told no one this until now. The script seemed to finish itself in a matter of one week. I’m sloughing off the title “writer,” as it seems to invite reckless criticism. Keeping the art secret, it grows. It is a sensitive thing in its fetal state. But while not being exposed to light, it seems to expand and I have found - for once in a very, very long time, that writing is a fucking blast.

I am a trucker with a big imagination, and that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s it.

Thinking this way, well, it takes the edge off.

One day, I may even be able to sing.

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