Weeding Out Your Critics
I’ve known for a long time that internal critics loom large in keeping writers from their writing. I learned this first for myself, when I realized that one of the people responsible for my block was Mrs. E. Dora Lauck, my fourth-grade teacher.
Mrs. Lauck was a “good” teacher in the old-fashioned sense of the term. A handsome woman, who pulled her hair back in a high bun and dressed in sheer blouses with full slips underneath, she believed in pushing each student to perform to the best of their ability—even if this meant humiliating one of us in front of the class.
I was one of Mrs. Lauck’s special projects. My family had lived in India for a year when I was seven, and when I returned to the States and entered third grade, I proved a lackluster student. For Miss Schubert, my third-grade teacher, this posed no great challenge. She was quite content for me to spend the year in the middle reading and math groups. But Mrs. Lauck sensed potential in me, and she was determined to wring it out, no matter what the cost.
The cost included one particular incident that remains more vivid than the rest. Our class had moved to a newly constructed elementary school sometime in the middle of my fourth-grade year, and it was time to lay the cornerstone. Toward participation in the ceremony, every class was to collect the signatures of each student on a thick piece of paper, the collective signatures to be lodged in the cavity at the corner of the building, before the stone was in place.
The morning of the ceremony, Mrs. Lauck gave elaborate instructions on just how we were to sign our names on the sheet—in a straight line, boldly, and, it goes without saying, in our best cursive.
I sat somewhere near the center of the class, which was arranged in rows of desks, about six desks per row. Stephen Hickey, who sat in the first desk on the left-hand side of the room, so that Mrs. Lauck could keep an eye on him, was the first to pen his name. Once Stephen passed the sheet to the person behind him, the classroom fell silent, and with each additional signature, the tension mounted. Who would make the first mistake? After all, somebody was bound to, especially in Mrs. Lauck’s classroom, where we were accustomed to being called on the carpet for even minor errors. “Pitcher!” Mrs. Lauck would exclaim, whenever one of us mispronounced the word for “image.” “Pitcher, that’s a vessel used to hold water. What’s the correct word for what you are trying to say?” Or, “Stuff? What in the world is that?” she’d query the hapless nine-year-old who had let his guard down and allowed the evil word to slip innocently into a sentence.
By the time the sheet of paper had circulated throughout the classroom, some of the tension had dissipated. Apparently everything had gone smoothly. Now all that remained was for Mrs. Lauck to affix her signature to the document, and certainly she would make no mistake.
But as Mrs. Lauck plucked the sheet from the last to sign and looked down at our handiwork, her shoulders rose, her face turned to stone, her eyes to slits. “Jane Anne Pomerantz,” she yelled, her voice rising to an operatic contralto, “Your name isn’t straight. You’ve ruined the sheet. Now the whole class will have to sign again!”
All my life I’ve had difficulty filling out forms, any kind of form, from credit card applications to retail surveys. It was only once I recalled the signature incident with Mrs. Lauck that my anxiety around filling out official documents became clear. And once I had a talk with Mrs. Lauck, some 40 years after the triggering event, a great deal of my anxiety around writing disappeared.
“Mrs. Lauck,” I said to my fourth-grade teacher, “I appreciate all the help you gave me in fourth grade. And I appreciate that you still care about the quality of my work. But I know other people who can help me with my writing. And there are plenty of fourth-graders who would benefit greatly from your presence in their lives. Why don’t you leave me and offer to help some of those younger students? I’m sure you’ll be appreciated.”
Since my work with Mrs. Lauck was so helpful in diminishing my writing inhibitions, I usually urge my clients to engage with their critics, particularly early in our work together. But every once in a while I slip up. I either identify the wrong critic/s. Or I miss the strong presence of a critic altogether. This happened recently with a writer I’ve been meeting with for quite some time. Toward the end of one of our meetings, she mentioned, in an offhanded way, an editor who had offered her a contract many years ago, then rejected the book once it was completed. As soon as I heard the editor’s name, I felt a charge run through me. Although this writer had been working through her writing inhibitions, our work was progressing more slowly than I had expected. Suddenly I knew why: I had overlooked a major deterrent to this client’s completing the book she is now writing. I understood at that moment that whenever this client sat down to write, the rejecting editor was present, reminding her that her previous book had failed.
Unfortunately, our meeting had to end, soon after my epiphany. But I am looking forward to our meeting this week, when we will kindly dis-invite the discouraging editor from my client’s writing process.