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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Go Praise Yourself

Confession: I like some of my writing. Sometimes as I revise, I enjoy what I’m reading even though I’ve written it. I even like some of the stuff I wrote a long time ago. Not all of it. As with any writer’s work, I read my own critically, especially the personal stuff, concerned I’ve crossed the line between healthy exhibitionism and neurotic self-disclosure. But that’s the point, isn’t it, of developing skills as a writer: to write interesting things that people will read willingly and not only because they have assigned you to write them?

Writers tend to throw their younger writing selves under buses, and they do it willingly. “Oh, god, I can’t believe that story got published,” they might say. “It’s terrible. I hadn’t found my voice.” Occasionally, they go further, telling you how much their writing used to suck and how hearing it read makes them want to jab their eardrums with a fountain pen. You wonder if you will soon witness some Greek-tragedy-style violence and hope their self-hatred doesn’t take a sudden turn outward. The self-deprecation creates a cycle, leading to the next line: “My work is much stronger now.” There is usually a pause, and sometimes a self-conscious chuckle. “At least I hope my work is stronger now.” Is this their main point? Or are you supposed to say something to ensure their personal drama ends happily?

Maybe they just want to be honest; in their search for truth, they know they are not exempt. But they’re also revealing insecurities, which can be an admirable thing to do, but to do so in response to praise of their work is unsettling, selfish, and, well, a little rude.

To be fair, I have done this kind of thing myself, and not just in response to writing. I’ve never had trouble identifying my weaknesses. When someone has told me they like what I do, I have often, too often, pointed out what I did wrong. Or if I can’t select a particular error from the list running through my mind, I’ve simply refused the compliment.

I remember getting a compliment from one of my high school English teachers. He was always so businesslike in class. One day, I saw him in the hallway and he told me he liked my performance in the musical. In class, I was a strange mix of angsty, obedient, and quiet, so I think seeing me onstage actually enjoying myself came as a surprise to him. He wanted to talk about the show, by which I mean he said a sentence or two. But having never talked to him outside of the classroom, and rarely on a one-to-one basis, his attention overwhelmed me.

The show was a rock musical adapted from one of Shakespeare’s comedies. He said he liked the way I sang–said that I “growled” like a rock star–and that I “really got into it.” He added, “You were great.”

This confused me. Here was my usually-serious teacher who served as my Chief Authority Figure regarding The English Language and The Canon. He was telling me that I growled, but rather than chide me, he told me that my performance was appropriate. Was I missing something? Was he losing his mind? I didn’t know. I was too busy sweating, wondering if he’d notice if I simply ran off.

Instead, I stood there and said the only thing I could think to say in response to his compliment. “Really? I didn’t know I’d done that.” I kept my face blank and shrugged.

He started to say something but stopped himself. I remember watching the expression slide off his face. I realized that he’d probably taken a professional risk by offering praise. His reputation, that of a tough English teacher who cared about his students–although not at the expense of his discipline–required that he refrain from handing out compliments as if they were Halloween candy. He’d wasted one of his intentionally small supply on me.

Based on my own experience, I now wonder if his professional persona helped him manage shyness, so the risk was also personal. Maybe he let his guard down. And maybe I knew to take advantage of that, a sort of social survival instinct, so I turned the tables, took on his emotionally impervious persona to protect myself.

It didn’t make me feel safe, though. I felt isolated. What I really wanted was to let tears come to my eyes, because getting a positive review from such a tough critic really surprised me. I’d thought–honestly–that I was invisible, even when standing on a stage in front of a few hundred people. But he saw me. All he wanted to do was let me know that.

His insight helped me see myself differently, in a small way, for a brief moment during one of the more liveable years of the worst years of my life. From his effort to reach me, I learned that I wasn’t ready to emerge. He resumed his role as my no-nonsense teacher, and I, as was so common, just stood there as he walked away from me, not saying any of the many things running through my mind.

One Response

  1. You added to “Go Praise Yourself” with the story of your English teacher complimenting you. I could vision myself in the hallway with you. The way you write allows me to do that so easily. In fact, I am able to feel my way through most of what you write. I think I like that very much. It is comfortable there. I feel you are much better than you give yourself credit for.

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