I was never much of a teacher's pet. Sometimes in my dreams I still see one of my yellow-haired teachers with her arms on her hips, glaring at me. As a kid, I used to wonder what it would be like to be the pet, the good little girl, the chosen one. I wonder if little girls still bring apples for their teachers. And cookies. Like little bribes.
A friend of mine who teaches creative writing was telling me how the worst student writers always love to read their work. They get up to the microphone on open-mic night and read and read. It's torture for everyone and gives readings a bad name. The good writers are self-conscious, afraid they might suck, so they stay seated. Or they do get up, but they only read a poem or a paragraph.
That makes you like them even more, doesn't it? I asked.
Yeah. For sure. But what is it that makes talent hide its face? And the lack thereof show off?
Next time you're at a student reading, look for the person who hogs the microphone. I promise you, you will be listening to the worst student I have.
The conversation made me think. I am sure I was one of those crappy writers. Not that I liked the microphone. Or had much chance to read at length. Open readings weren't ever my thing. But I think low expectations have always helped me out. It was okay not to be a great talent . . . yet. I always feel as if I am still hoping to write the perfect poem or story. Or at least to write something I like.
I am reminded of my dad who was an artist, a very critical and self-critical artist, who wanted all of his kids to draw or paint or do something arty. Two of my sisters were what he considered very talented. (He was right. They could draw anything.) Neither one of them ever wanted to be an artist. He ruined it for them by labeling them, praising them, or so it seemed. One of my talented sisters was telling me how weird she thought it was that he would tell me everything I drew was wrong, and I would just keep drawing it the wrong way, not seeming to care. Dad would tell me I held my pencil too tightly, so the images were always too squinchy and cartoonish. They lacked dimension.
He was right. But I never really thought of myself as an artist. It's just relaxing to draw. And I did sometimes try what he said, and I loved his attention and so on. I loved the fact that he would set us up with drawing paper and pencils. But somehow the negative comments didn't seem to bother me too much. I don't know why. I haven't drawn anything for years, but my son just gave me this cool toy for Xmas, so I've been doodling and remembering what a nice way it is to pass a few minutes.
Add to that that another sister, one my father did not choose, is now a really cool artist. She does her own beautiful thing . . .
I keep wondering -- how odd it is that praise can be so problematic. And criticism might be less troubling.
Nin Andrews is the author of 5 full collections of poetry and 6 chapbooks. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet, Henri Michaux. Her literary comics are posted on Best American Poetry's Blog on Monday mornings.