Monday, May 12, 2014

The Long Scar of Insensitivity

Last week at the WWAMatrix Conference I did the second public reading of my work ever. Given that I’ve been publishing for decades this is a scant performance record. There’s a reason for that.

Granted I’ve never been fond of readings. I’ve lectured to auditoriums and led workshops in classrooms filled with writers. But presenting my own writing – word for word – has always been something I preferred to avoid.

Then in the mid-nineties the offer came that I couldn’t refuse. Any instructor at an Upstate New York conference who’d been published in the past year was given what amounted to an ultimatum to read.

I was reluctant to say the least but resigned. I prepared a highly emotional piece based on real life experience – the night my grandmother died and my mother suffered a psychotic break when she found out – all while I at seven years old listened in terror upstairs.

Audience response was enthusiastic. I was elated and floated back to my seat on that ecstasy – until the next reader approached the dais. She was a popular instructor with a coterie of disciples. She announced her poetry reading in a mocking and acerbic tone.

“This is also about my mother but very different from what you just heard. I had a dearest mommy not a mommy dearest.”

Her coterie applauded and I was shattered. I never read my work to an audience – other than a few lines in a classroom for teaching purposes – from that night until a week ago when my friend Dorothy Randall Gray the Queen of WWAM convinced me it was time for a healing moment.

We all know how deftly a cruel criticism can stop us in our writing tracks – send us quaking into self-doubt and insecurity. In other words – silence us. That night in the nineties was my silencing. I didn’t stop writing but an aspect of my voice had been stilled all the same.

We must be careful of one another. We recognize the fragility in ourselves. We must recognize it in others also. Commenting on each other’s work must begin with honoring its strengths. The rest must be couched as suggestions for further strengthening.

Always we must temper our words with kindness. Because cutting words have the power to amputate a creative limb that may not grow back for decades – if ever at all.