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Walking Away from Must-Be-Right

Lucca, Italy 2007

Some mail we read with gusto. Some we trash right away. But the contents of the right kind of letter or short note can change what we thought we knew. Ten years ago, after my father read one of my earliest, greenest stories, he sent me this:

Such beautiful words I have never read before. Use this talent. Do you hear me?

I printed his note and taped it above my desk. I was grateful. I never thought my father could like my writing. For a long time I tried to absorb his first sentence, but self-doubt made this difficult.

Though I am not yet friends with criticism, we're well-acquainted. Like unfortunate college roommates who snubbed each other from kindergarten through high school, I scrunch against the doorway, give her dibs on the bed and desk she prefers, and watch her smirk as she unloads her suitcase of fancy clothes.

I learned early that no one could make anything—a move toward a friendship, a mud castle, dinner, a dance—without some level of scrutiny. No matter what, people would look. Someone would have a comment. My irritation at this everpresent criticism keeps me shooting for must-be-right. This I want and need to change.

In writing school we workshopped our stories every semester with two faculty members and eight students. These wise people were thick with knowledge. They were good communicators with insightful comments. Though marking manuscripts was interesting to me, and easy over the course of a few days in my quiet house, in class I feared speaking up. What if my comments contradicted someone elses’s? Workshop made me feel unevolved. I seemed to lack the courage and wisdom to express the perfect answers.

I experienced a similar situation in college. My photo professor studied art through a philosophical lens. Her complex dissection of a photograph confused me. What I knew then was only what I could see and touch. The features of the camera. Shutter speed, aperture. Subject-framing. The necessity of considering light and dark. I could make neat-looking artsy photographs, but I couldn't explain their sub-story. It's taken me a long time and a lot of writing study to understand this concept.

Teachers, readers, writers, roommates will always comment. If they like our stuff, great. If they don’t, well, we can't do a thing about that.

The point to remember is that if we don’t write, we risk nothing. Comfy maybe, but without that risk, without a little kick in the shins of perfectionism, we can't produce our art or our stories. We never meet the people who resonate with our work. We make the critics very bored. And we eliminate all possibility of receiving tender little notes from our well-meaning fathers.

Happy writing.


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