Saturday, January 25, 2014

Band-Aids for a bruised ego

     Writers, me included, are an intriguing study in the juxtaposition of paralyzing insecurity and haughty egoism.  Inevitably, I cannot wait to get my newest piece published, printed or posted so that others can appreciate my talent and effort, even though I am absolutely sure that it isn’t very well written.  I know I could have done better.  I should have re-edited it four or five more times, made some changes in the word choices, added more coloring, and deleted some of the prolix details.  I really do wish I was as good as I think I am. J

     This week I wrote a small piece that I was happy with when it was finished.  I wrote it for the Internet society, so I posted it on my blog.  I watched as a couple of hundred people flocked to my site to see what I had written.  I even sent a couple of special invitations to friends, because I thought it came out worthy of their reading.  I received a few kudos and compliments from the usual sources, but from my friends and peers, the comments and critiques remained either tacit or unmerited by my work.  That happens sometimes.  The artist in me wanted it to be great, but apparently it wasn’t.  If one doesn’t have an ego capable of surviving being stepped on, spat at or savagely attacked with impaling weaponry, then either you should not practice art in any of its forms, or practice it without ever showing your work to the public.  Art in all of its forms is completely subjective and what impresses some will not work for all.
     So I licked my wounds and decided to put my story away for a few months.  I liked the premise, character and the structure; obviously there were some major flaws that I could not as yet see.  I was hurt because even my closest friends, on who I depend for honest critiques, did not take the time to tell me where I strayed, faltered and fell.  To discover my mistakes, I was going to have to wait for the opaque fog of creativity to lift from my eyes so that I could view my work in the same cold harsh light that I examine the work of others.
     It was during this floundering in the eddy of my pride and humility that I received an email from my sister delivered with all of the tact of a full-force kick to the groin.  She was reminding me that I had forgotten that my baby brother’s birthday was this very day.  She said she thought I could “at least” send him an email.
     I gave thought to what alternatives I had that could be borne by my budget still recovering from my recent marital dissolution.  In the end, I surrendered to the truth that for anything to be delivered immediately, I was going to have to pen an email.
     Over the years I have written more than a few birthday greetings that were well received, so I began reading through my files looking for something that could be recycled for my youngest brother.  It turns out that all of my well-phrased birthday wishes were written to female friends, and try as I might, I could not adapt any of them to a male, let alone a brother.  So in desperation I sat down and wrote:

                     Hey brother Thom,
The calendar has shifted and the years have crept by, so it comes along again, that anniversary of the traumatic scalpel induced birth of the youngest Kent.  No one really holds it against you; it was, of course, Mom and Dad's fault you were thrust into this world in its perilous condition.  On the good side of that precarious Cesarean delivery 54 years ago, you have made the most of your ill-timed existence, resolving to conduct a life worthy of pride.  You took what was handed you, soiled it a few times, and then learned from experiences to which only you could attest, polished what was left, and made this world a better place. 
Happy birthday,
and thanks, little bro.

     Several days passed and I received a note from Thom’s email address.  I opened it to find a glowing letter from my sister-in-law who informed me that nothing her husband received or could have received touched him more than my brief message.  She related that he had taken it to his workplace and shared it with his confederates, took it to his weekend gig and let his band read it, and that she was under direct and repeated warnings to never delete my emailed birthday wish.  My brother would, of course, rather drive off a cliff than to pick up a phone or send an email to personally express his sentiments.
     Her accolades were substantiated by a subsequent phone call from my sister essentially relating the same tale of brotherly pride and heartfelt emotions.  I have to admit that when something, anything I have written touches someone, my ego is bolstered with a proud satisfaction that is more pleasant than any other sensation I have yet to experience.
     After I wrote a long reply addressed to both my brother and his wife, I returned my attention to my work at hand.  In the email was something from an unknown addressee.  Thinking that it might be a lead on more editorial work, I opened it first.  It was an astoundingly complimentary letter from a literary agent whom I had not heard of before.  She was directed to read my blog post and was moved to tears.  There was more to the letter that had to do with some future work that I have yet to agree to, but the premise of her contact left me awed.
     Before the end of that day, I received another complimentary note from Israel lamenting a workday that was “wasted” while learning from and enjoying my writings.  And then I received one from South Dakota, one from Canada and another from South Africa.  All of these comments were written by people with whom I had had no previous contact, and all on the post from which I had received so few responses. 
     I was reminded why I do this, why we all do this, it is for the audience.  An unread manuscript, an unseen painting, an unheard song or an uneaten meal is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  It does not matter whether there is a sound for it could never be appreciated.

     I find myself burdened with time restraints, and I refuse to lob the tasteless marshmallows of “Great work,” “I’m impressed,” or “You have such talent,” in response to anything I read.  There is a scholarly formula for constructing a critique.  That formula has been so engrained in me in the years I spent in academia that I could not bring myself to use some truncated method of addressing another writer’s work.  But then I have to consider those rejuvenating compliments sent by total strangers.  I read pieces every day and I am often moved by the talent and craftsmanship of the authors, but I don’t as often as I should, address the quality of their work.  I am resolving to change that immediately, so for all of you writers who know me from the social sites, our writing groups and the academic round tables, expect to hear more from me.  I promise that if what you receive is merely the briefest of kudos, it will be my sincerest expression of appreciation moderated by the demands of my schedule.

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