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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Old Enemies

An assignment in The Artist’s Way, requires that we record a real life “horror story” that resulted in “damage to our creative self-worth.” Per the author, “It is necessary to acknowledge creative injuries and grieve them.” For the most part, I think she anticipates that enemies are others--outside parties who question the artist’s skills. In my case, the enemy resided within. I can’t change the past, but I can recognize it, mourn it, and crumple it up in the fireplace before touching it with a match. Join me if you like, in front of the crackling flames.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I jumped off the “undecided” fence I was straddling and dipped myself into black ink by declaring myself a Journalism Major. The school hosted a small department--two cranky full-time professors who may or may not have once been journalists, one part-time teacher who also ran the sports section of the local newspaper. He was the one I liked the most.

Toward the end of sophomore year, our “final exam” in Cranky Professor #2’s class involved conducting a bona fide interview with a public official. I was shy, shy, shy, and back then; it took little for what confidence I had to trickle out of me like water from a low-flow sprinkler. Too scared to knock on the door of some stranger, I constructed my own little press conference by convincing a friend in class that we could interview the Chief of Police together.

She knew better, I’m thinking, but agreed. Off we went, making sure to write and ask our own questions, take our own notes, and author our own feature articles. Our collaboration, if you call it that, occurred because we sat in the same place at the same time. Since writing was always the easy part; my article flowed from me. The story contained a stellar hook; I remember it went something like: “As a boy, Joe Smith always wanted to be a policeman. Now he’s proud to be chief.” I passed in my completed assignment feeling pretty darn tickled with myself.

The day he returned our graded articles, the teacher walked around handing them out one by one. As he approached my desk, I gasped at the red “F” at the top of my paper--staring in disbelief at his comment: “Miss M--- says this is her story!!” I looked in shock at my friend and she waved her paper marked C+. Of course I should have waited until after class, but instead raised my hand and asked why he failed me. He offered a condescending comment her paper getting in first, and rather than bawling in class, I stomped out.

It was clear, whether it was his plan or not, the professor had called my bluff. I was a chicken, and chickens don’t make it in the rough and challenging field of investigative journalism. It galled however, the way he arbitrarily assigned the failing grade to me. Not that I was wishing it on my friend; I wasn’t. But she never claimed it was “her” story; he never asked. The F landed with me simply because hers landed closer to the top of his pile.

In looking back I thank God, that I, and not the friend I had coerced, was the one that got the F. Back then though, the unequal punishment chewed at me. Deep down I knew I had dug my own hole; I had to build a ladder and climb out. The next day I marched up the steps to the professor’s office in my wooden clogs. During that meeting, in which he informed me that my paper would have been graded an A, I was successful making my point about the unequal treatment in his grading. He granted me a second chance to complete the assignment.

Leaving his office, I walked the three miles to town and interviewed the Postmaster, returned to my room, pounded out an article on my manual typewriter and marched it back to the professor’s office. I remember the hook to that story too: “Some people dislike their jobs, but the Postmaster of Winooski never feels out of sorts.” Grade on that one: A-

Sadly though, after I proved myself, I caved. Rather than admitting I could, indeed, conduct interviews with strangers, and write a damn good story to boot, I rationalized all over the place about how unjust the punishment had been. I wasn’t going to put up with it, no sir. Within the week, I confided my woes to the head of the English Department and switched majors. Two years later I graduated with no clue as to what to do.

The irony to this story of which I am not proud, is that seven years after that life-altering class, I fell into a career in an HR Recruitment role in which I spent anywhere from 50% to 90% of the time interviewing strangers. Unfortunately, the position did not require me to write.

Should have, would have, and could have… nothing now but phrases to warm my hands by. If I had toughed it out all those years ago though, I might have learned to do both.

Did you have enemies to your creative self-worth? How did you banish them?


Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Thank you for sharing this story with us. Breaks my heart a little bit. So many coulda shouldas in life, but I'm so glad to see you returning to your passion. I'd say most of my creative enemies have been self-created. But I'm finally at a point in my life where I feel strong enough, I think. And certainly, it takes a certain strength--a conscious decision--to do it. Writing is hard, the business of publishing even harder. But we can do it, I think. We can.

glnroz said...

and if,,"Ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas". Now that I have expressed my briliant wit, I must think about your activating question and get back to ya.. lol I too was shy, and still am, that has been a continuing enemy.....how to banish it,, I am not sure, but I think this might have helped a little bit,, thnx,

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I ache for the student you were to have such a crank for a professor. Your hooks were indeed good. But, having been a journalist myself and watching the industry crash and burn, you may not have missed much in that career. And the good news is you are writing great stuff now.
I have plenty of internal enemies who tell me I'm not good enough. The only way to banish them is to keep writing and getting better, I think.

Sharon said...

The more autobiography I read, the more convinced I am that, to be an accomplished artist, a very sensitive personality is far more of a blessing than a curse. But, that doesn't make it hurt less, does it. Thank you for this honest and touching confession.

Tabitha Bird said...

Liza, I really love the way you write. That opening paragraph was beautiful and the rest was just as good. I loved the scene in front of the fireplace with you and your past! So good.

And yes, I'll join you. I have loved to write as long as I can remember. My parents just thought it was cute, if they thought about it at all. I alway got top marks in English, but when it came timet o decide what uni course I wanted to do my mother pushed me into teaching. Now I am not saying I haven't loved my career as a teacher, because I have. It turns out I was quite good at it and I think teaching is apart of who I am, but it is not the most important part. that part is writing and I never thought I was any good at it until a friend sent some of my writing into a magazine and that magazine wanted to pay me to print it. Imagine my surprise.

Now I am a parent I make damned sure that I am encouraging my children's talents and not pushing them in some direction I would like to see them go. It has taken me 32 years to say, "I am a writer." But here I am. :)

Thanks for sharing Liza.

Liza said...

I thought long and hard about printing this post...a bit personal after all. But as I read these responses, I know I touched a core...it's not just me who has old demons to fight.

Carolina, you are right. We can...and we MUST keep telling ourselves that.

Glen, I know shy. A lot of time it takes breathing deep and just doing it. Nike had something there.

Trisha, I don't dwell on what I didn't do...much, just when I am forced to think about it, and this was an assignment for me. You are so right though. The way to beat these insecurities is to write and write and write our doubts out. I so appreciate your kind feedback.

Sharon, I have been accused of being too sensitive...and yes, it's painful, but I am glad for it. It is what makes us good--an absolute blessing.

And Tabitha, oh my. I got tears in my eyes reading your post. I'm so pleased for you that you found how to stay true to yourself early in your life :). Don't let the writer in you go underground ever...

Everyone, keep at it. We are ALL good.

Thank you for your kind comments.

Helen Ginger said...

Thank you for sharing your story. What strikes me is how strong you were to go back and confront him. I'm not sure I would've had that much gumption back when I was in college.

Straight From Hel