A Brief History of Criticism

My first literary critic was this asshole in the fourth grade. He read a short story I wrote: a mystery following animal characters that had no business getting their plot-development-on in the jungle climate of the Amazon. Suspend disbelief. And fuck it, I was eight. My classmate said it was “good.” Then, came the “but” parade. That “but” that introduces criticism to come. Le sigh. I indulged him, listening passively to all suggested revisions.

Fast forward to sixth grade, an author’s chair, end-of-year pow-wow. Ms. Mowery had us hand in our short story free-writes in one of two piles—pile one for grading only, pile two for an anonymous read-aloud. Pile two’s incentive was the allure of extra credit; read: crack for any over-achieving middle-schooler with nothing much going on in their life. I put my whopper of a short story, ten pages of chicken scratch, single-spaced, in pile two. I wasn’t particularly proud of the piece, but I was proud of the effort. (One of procrastination’s finest, completed in the wee hours of the morning it was due.) Ms. Mowery read it aloud and my skin felt like it was on fire. A slow, quite burn that had my insides on broil and my outsides paralyzed—the medical diagnosis is situational Ebola. She paused and reread a line of mine reeking of pretention and exhaled this drawn out “huuuhhh…” Surprisingly, most of my peers were quiet (or asleep) for the duration of my narrative’s debut. Otherwise, the experience only reinforced how much I don’t like to hear what I have to say read back to me from people I know. It reminds me of my lack of confidence in something I think I love, the indefinite meaning of “huh” and that anonymity only offers fleeting comfort.

There was also my grandpa. A constant in terms of encouragement that I never truly tapped. He knew I was a weird kid—a kid that spent summers in his casa in Florida drafting elaborate floor plans on scraps of graph paper and secretly crafting feature screenplays. I can picture him eavesdropping on me as I whispered fragments of dialogue-in-progress to myself, like a mad adolescent (or an up-and-coming schizophrenic), in vacant rooms of the house. He introduced me to Sophocles, Ibsen and O’Neill. He shared his short stories with me and I selfishly kept mine to myself. A year or so before he passed, he USPSed me his first published novel, which I never opened till after his death because I’m awful like that. Inside the inscription read: I hope you find this interesting! Now it is your turn to produce an original work. I look forward to seeing it (or selling it, but I’m ninety-five percent sure it says seeing it)!

He never saw/sold anything of mine because I couldn’t get my shit together. Couldn’t get my discipline-on Chuck Norris-style. Couldn’t take criticism well enough to give a rough draft its due reincarnation. Like my fourth grade self, I have yet to master the skill of accepting criticism constructively, gracefully. In short, “good” and “but” are two of the worst words in el linguaje de inglis para mi. Good will always be subpar and but often equates to a cessation of listening. I hear, but defense systems come up, full-force.  Huh is pendulous in nature. And, if you don’t pry further, you’ll remember, or misremember, the intent of huh.

So, I’m saying this to myself (and anyone else out there in the cyberverse orbiting around M107), it’s time to produce. Get over the self-imposed shades of meaning that you’ve attached to the words good, but and huh. Don’t be a victim of situational Ebola. Be a doer. Not a what if-er. Throw out the training wheels and floaties and everything else that makes you feel safe, because they’re holding you back.

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