Ran across an interesting question on Twitter a few weeks ago: Writers, have you ever faced harsh criticism?
I must admit that question strikes a chord with me. Oh, not necessarily from something that happened here at Middle Zone Musings or anything. I’m happy to report that, since I started writing here at the Zone, there have only been a couple of instances when someone decided to, er, let me have it.
What was it about, you ask? Well, suffice it to say, said criticism had absolutely nothing to do with my ability to write, if you get my meanin’. Thankfully, things have pretty much always been fairly even-keeled around here. I suppose, in a way, it’s a welcome vindication of my goal that the Zone appeal to as many folks as possible.
Anyhoo, getting’ back to the subject…
Lookin’ a mite further back, though, I remember all those English teachers I faced from grade school on up through college. But I suppose we all wrestled with them as we grew up. Par for the course, right? So, on the whole, I’d say I’ve done OK.
Ah, but what about undeserved criticism vis a vis your writing ability? Now that’s a critter of a different hue, wouldn’t ya say? I remember this one, um, professor (imagine the word forced out through clenched teeth – but don’t worry; I’m over it now) from my first year in college…
Now ya gotta understand, y’all; I started reading at an early age and loved it. Back when I was a kid (that’s human, not goat), while everyone else was outside playing in the sandbox, you’d more than likely find me over in a quiet corner somewhere reading a book.
Even back then science fiction was my favorite (and still is, for that matter). Not that one type of reading matter is better than any other type, mind you, but I’ve always believed reading sci-fi stories is what helped jump start a broad technical vocabulary, not to mention help point me towards my current career in engineering. (At least that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.)
Well, once I grasped the fundamentals of writing (somewhere along about High School) I always got good grades on writing assignments. Plus, along the way I discovered writing was sorta fun – especially when I was allowed to let loose my imagination, y’know?
Suffice it to say, then, that I was fairly confident in my ability to string words together in a way that not only managed to say what I wanted to them to say, but I could say it in a way that would satisfy pretty much anyone. Until, as I said, I started college.
My first-year encounter with college was quite an adjustment, I’ll tell ya! Not only was it my first time living away from home, but it wasn’t long before I ran smack dab into a particularly hard truth about college life. The fact is, the word school took on a whole new meaning for me. See, up until then, going to school wasn’t really a choice, y’know? I mean, I had to go whether I liked it or not.
I quickly discovered, however, that now I was surrounded by folks who had actually chosen to be there. (Imagine that!) And I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that put a whole ‘nuther hump on the camel, if you get my meanin’.
Even the teachers (oops, professors) were different. Although most of them genuinely seemed to like what they were doing, there were a few who sorta, er, stood out from the herd – both good and bad. And I’ll tell ya; nobody was worse than… Dr. Dead! (flash of lighting, crack of thunder, sound of terrified scream)
Now, at first blush you may be thinkin’ to yerself, Hey, that’s a pretty harsh moniker to give a college professor! Where’s the respect, Bubba? But hear me out, my friends; hear me out as I relate to you what happened on that fateful first day in English 101.
Here’s the scene: It’s your typical college classroom, complete with room-spanning blackboard at the front (yes, we used blackboards back then – and please, no snide “age” comments from the peanut gallery, thank you very much) along with a wooden teacher’s desk that had obviously seen better days. About 25 of us were seated in metal and/or wooden student’s desks, back packs at our feet, freshly-scrubbed faces eager and ready for our first exposure to, y’know, what we laughingly refer to as “higher eddicashun” (that’s “education” for you upper-crust types).
Anyway, once we all got situated, an old man tottered in and headed for the desk at the front. (Yes, he really “tottered”. Seriously.) Upon reaching the desk, he turned around, sat down on the edge and crossed his legs like a talk show host. Then he crossed his arms as well, all the while giving us the once-over with his steely gaze. (For you “body language” gurus: what would that posture tell you?) Then:
“Good morning; my name is (name redacted to protect, er, me),” he began in his thin, reedy voice. “This is English 101, and for those of you who may have heard this is a tough class… well, they are quite correct.”
He continued in this vein for a few minutes, and I could see the other students’ eyes reflecting the same sense of impending doom I was beginning to feel. After a while, he began to talk about his “style”, and that’s when it started getting a mite, um, surreal.
“Now some of you may consider yourselves to be good, or even excellent at your use of the English language.” He paused to survey the room, making sure he had all our attention, then – well, that’s when he lowered the ol’ boom on us. “I want you to understand this fact: I will be the sole judge of your ability to write. It doesn’t matter what you think; my opinion is the only one that matters here. I am sixty-four and one-half years old, and only six months from retirement, so we’re going to do this class my way, and my way only!”
There was more, but I’m tellin’ ya, at this point it was so quiet a dropped pin woulda sounded like a 30-car pileup; I don’t think any of us even dared breathe for a few moments. I mean, what the heck was this? It was after that first class when I overheard a couple of other students use the name, “Dr. Dead”. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for that little gem to stick.
He Lived Up To His Name
I’ll tell ya, when he told us his way was the only way, he wasn’t kidding! Our first paper was due the very next class (and for those of you who don’t know, English 101 is pretty much ALL writing “papers”) and I knew it was going to either make or break me as far as this class was concerned. Although I admit my confidence was a mite shaken, at that point I wasn’t too worried. I mean, I had already proven I was pretty good at it, right? (He said, nervously.)
Well, I turned my paper in on time (of course). When we met next, I was running a bit late, so by the time I arrived Dr. Dead was already handing out our graded papers. As he delivered each one I tried to see if there were any clues as to the results.
Yup, sure enough. It was kinda like watchin’ wallpaper fade (albeit a mite faster). Each face reflected the same sequence of reactions. First, there was a widening of the eyes in surprise (when they saw their grade), followed by a silent snort of disgust (or its equivalent) as they immediately compared it with their neighbor’s grades. Finally, there was a rolling of the eyes as they realized EVERYONE was as shocked as they were.
I was therefore not too surprised that my own grade was, er, less than stellar; I mean, I’d already seen the movie, if you follow me. Even so, I couldn’t help myself; as soon as I got mine, well, my eyes widened, I snorted – ah, you get the picture, right?
But it wasn’t that the grade starin’ me in the face was, to put it mildly, less that what I expected. I mean, that was bad enough. No, it was the fact that, right up there at the top of the page, there was a big, fat “F”! And in red ink, no less!
What the heck was this!?! I mean, I put my heart and soul into that paper – just so he would know I was better than the average writer, y’know? And this was my reward!? To say I was shocked is something of an understatement.
From Bad To Worse
Well, the class continued along those lines for pretty much the rest of the semester. And on every single paper, no matter what I did, I got almost the same results. (Although I did manage to pull out a “D” on one. I partied for a week.)
To say I was frustrated would be a major insult to the word “frustrated”, I’m tellin’ ya! I had conferences with the man several times, and each time he merely repeated his initial statement: his way or nothing. As the semester ground on, I even met with the Dean of the English Department to complain. Unsurprisingly, I got no help there.
I finally ended up dropping the class in hopes I could retake it with a different professor the next semester. And, although I passed it that second time, suffice it to say that by then my love of writing had pretty much been snuffed out like Smokey the Bear stomping out an unattended campfire in the woods.
I’ll tell ya, folks; I knew when I was beaten. As I look back on it now, I’m sure this little episode went a long way towards squelching my secret boyhood dream to eventually become a successful, rich and famous (not to mention loved by fans everywhere) sci-fi author. Sad, but true. (Not to lessen my own personal responsibility for makin’ the choice, mind you.) But to tell you the truth, I never wrote anything for fun again – until I took up blogging back in 2006.
A Hard Lesson
Well I’m not ashamed to admit I learned a hard lesson from this, y’all, and sad to say, it don’t necessarily paint ol’ yours truly in the best of lights, if you get my meanin’. My only defense, as pitiful as it may be, is that I was younger (and presumably more, well, let’s tell it like it was: stupid) than I am now.
The hard fact is, I’m the one who allowed that professor to dictate how I felt about my own writing – and about myself. In fact, I’ll go ever farther and say this: whether or not I was a good writer was irrelevant to the fact that I let someone else tell me how to feel about myself!
Friends, listen to an old cowboy and learn somethin’, won’t ya? Don’t do that!
As I’ve discovered the hard way, how we feel about ourselves is the one thing we’re pretty much in control of in this life, y’know? This incident, and others like it, taught me how easy it is to take someone else’s self-esteem down a notch or two.
And it doesn’t stop there. No, this sort of thing can have long-term consequences as well. It took quite a few years before I was again willing to risk having someone else read anything I wrote – in my case, 34 years. Yeesh, what a waste! But not to worry, I think I’ve finally gotten over it.
In fact, nowadays it’s gotten to where it’s kinda hard to shut me up. But then, that’s a dog of a different spot, wouldn’t ya say?
Photo credit: F, by duncan