self-destructive criticism

When I woke up this morning the first thing I did was check my email.

I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t even open my eyes; I just rolled over and groped blindly among the shoes, books, cardigans, bags, wool, charger cords, newspapers, plastic bags, unpaid bills, and empty drinking bottles until my hand settled on the familiar shape of my phone. I hung off the edge of the bed and scrolled through my notifications. Right at the bottom, beneath a string of marketing emails alerting me to sales I had no interest in, was an email from my editor.

I knew before I opened it that this was not going to be a fun email to read, because I had known when I submitted my last piece that it wasn’t good enough. I had known, and I had sat in front of my laptop the entirety of the day before until my head ached, trying to get the words out, but they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a complex piece, it wasn’t something dear to my heart – it was just a film review, of an interesting film that I had quite liked, but not loved, and in my head I knew why I felt the way I did about it. It shouldn’t have been a hard piece to write. But for whatever reasons the words wouldn’t come out and so I had typed up some rambling approximation of what was going through my head and sent it in before I could talk myself out of “finishing” it. I wanted to be done with it. I knew it was bad, and I knew I was too frustrated to keep looking at it, and I knew the deadline had already whooshed unhappily past. I was starting to feel a little scared, as I always do when it comes to the crunch, that I have chosen the wrong career and that I cannot handle writing.

Writing is hard to handle, harder than movie-montages of Shakespeare-types dipping their quills or hyped-up Beats frantically typing out scroll upon scroll into the madness of the night: writing scares the fuck out of me, and sometimes I can’t face it. Not every day, just some days, writing will suddenly be inexplicably more difficult to do on that day than on other days, and I have no idea why. On a bad day, everything I write comes out as drivel; every intelligent thought I have is obscured by my sudden inability to find the right word; all my good ideas whither under my cruel, unforgiving gaze.

I open the email and it tells me exactly what I already think of myself. Nice try, Lauren. Did you even go to high school? Did you not see those spelling mistakes? Have you ever heard of grammar? Good ideas – wish you’d had the brains to develop them. I hyperventilate quietly into my pillow, and when this stops seeming like a good plan I go and hyperventilate in the bathroom for a little bit, so my boyfriend won’t hear me and ask me what’s wrong. (If he asked me, I’d have to explain: I did this stupid thing, I knew it was stupid, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I just can’t handle this.) I look in the bathroom mirror, like people in movies do when they are having existential crises, and I ask the exhausted face in there if maybe it mightn’t be time that I gave up on the idea of having dreams and picked something else I could settle for.

For some reason, the utter absurdity, the completely self-pitying foolishness of this thought snaps me out of my panicky little spiral. Give up on having dreams? Did you really just think that? I know I am starting to sound a little bit like an American talk show host when I write this, but really – who, in their right mind, thinks Oh, you know what would be sweet? Having no ambition and being content with a really dull job. I could get really good at gardening. My life could be like one long Dilbert strip. 

And so I go back into the other room and this time the email says: ‘Thanks for your review, Lauren. I really liked x, y, and z – you should develop those more. Also, I’d like you to watch your spelling and grammar mistakes.’ Because the first time I read it through, I wasn’t really listening to my editor – who is lovely, and knows the value of constructive criticism (and probably a thing or two about the fragile egos of writers) – I was still listening to the panicky, scared, stupid girl who thinks a bad day means the end of a career. Or that a bad day makes a bad writer.

So I had a shower. I went to the bakery and got a coffee, and a muffin I probably shouldn’t have, but what the hell. I sat down in front of my computer and did the crazy-writer thing, where I mutter my sentences to myself and my boyfriend looks at me funny. And today turned out to be an equally inexplicably good writing day, and when I went looking for the words I found them, and my sentences made sense, and my ideas seemed pretty good, actually, once I got the chance to look at them again. And I learned my lesson for the day: whether it be first drafts or feedback emails from editors, read everything through twice. Things will look different in the morning.

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*Actually, from time to time I have wished for apathy. Most often I’m in the middle of a panic attack when I think this – I think, god, if only I didn’t care. But this, like the panic, passes.

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