What Are We Really Afraid Of?

The topic of critics is complicated. Most people who struggle with writing inhibitions can think of a family member, friend or teacher who has said unkind words about their writing. My first critic was my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lauck, who criticized me even for the way I wrote my name on the page–before I had even begun to write. And then there was my father, who told me the college essay I had written “would never do.”

I will never forget that moment, my father at my desk, while I sat on my bed, waiting for him to finish reading. I had done my best and thought the essay pretty good, so when my father turned around to face me and issued his verdict, I was blindsided.

If I still recall that moment and its impact—the fist I felt punching me in my solar plexus–it must account for the extreme difficulty I faced with writing once I entered college. Right? For a long time, I believed this. Believed that my father, through his devastating criticism of my essay, turned me instantly into a blocked writer. After all, my father, the brilliant physicist, had told me I was no good.

I believed this for years. Until I started working with writers, most of whom talked to me about their perfectionism and their fear of criticism. It was easy to accept that a father or a teacher or a best friend who had condemned a client’s writing was responsible for the struggle my clients encountered each time they wanted to write.

I believed this until one day, a client was talking to me about his past success as a speech writer for highly visible political candidates. Until that moment, we had been discussing his intensely critical father and mother and how they had stripped him of his confidence. There was no denying that his parents had affected my client. In many ways. But, I thought, if they had so thoroughly torn him down, how could he explain his speech writing success?

“That’s easy,” he replied. “I wasn’t writing for myself. It’s when I have to write something I want to write that I have trouble.”

“That’s interesting,” I replied. “Then fear of criticism alone doesn’t inhibit you. If that were the case, you would certainly not have been able to write speeches for others. By definition, those speeches were subject to criticism.”

I thought about my conversation with my client after he left, piecing together everything I knew about his family of origin. His father had been a very successful businessman, a veritable tycoon, until a scandal had cut his career short. After spending a great deal of the business fortune on lawyers, the family needed his mother’s income to get by. Depending on his wife to support the family dealt the second huge blow to my client’s father, who now felt like a complete failure. Thinking about this, I wondered if this client, unconsciously, felt that his personal success might be painful for his father.

Then I thought about my relationship with my own father. Though he had a brilliant career in physics, throughout high school and early in college my father had planned to be a journalist. He loved writing, and had received several awards as editor of his high school newspaper. It was only during his junior year in college that he had discovered physics.

Fast forward several years until my father failed his first thesis defense. I wasn’t around yet, but the specter of that failure haunted my father, despite his subsequent successes. By the time I was old enough to be aware of my father’s moods, he seemed unhappy and insecure. I drew two conclusions from observing him: he thought he had made a mistake in dropping journalism; and it was up to me to brighten his life.

Before talking to my client about his speech-writing success, I had been vaguely aware of this dynamic between me and my father, but had never dived deeply into it. Now, as I sat thinking about my father and me, I realized that perhaps my writer’s block in college did, indeed, stem from my father, but not in the way I had always thought.

Perhaps once I got to college, I couldn’t allow myself to write well. After all, I too had won awards for my high school journalism. And I had no difficulty writing in French, my major. It was only writing in English that I struggled. What if unconsciously I had been worried that once I got to college, my writing well would lead my father to regret more than ever that he had not become a journalist?

If I were responsible for my father’s happiness, writing well might interfere with his well-being. Of course, our family psychology played into this. But even without knowing all the ins and outs of what made our family tick, I think you can understand my dilemma—conscious or not.

In the years that have followed, I’ve confirmed my suspicions about myself and many of my clients. Deep down, it’s not criticism we fear, it’s success. There is often a father or a mother or a sibling or a partner who wanders the inhibited writer’s psyche, reminding the writer that her success will make them feel just awful. It is only once we come to terms with this surprising fear that we can open the door wide to putting ourselves freely onto the page.

Mesa Verde Lichens

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