Fed by Feedback
Lemon trees bared fruit beneath the bluish fluorescent lights of the underground garden. A large tank held tiny, graceful lives and the black Himalayan liked to snatch them. Now Bailey, the one-year-old cat, sauntered through the basement and clawed the cushion of the only open chair. Her black hair stretched outward, like a porcupine whose quills had been poofed and made of fluff. As we slunk into the comfort of the couches, she climbed atop the tall-backed rocker, owning it. Owning us.
The hostess’s auburn hair was of similar length, but hung down limply to the frames of her glasses and the opening of her ear canal. She placed dozens of items on a rectangular coffee table to inspire our muse. A miniature gargoyle. Handcuffs. A chicken’s foot used to cast spells. I snatched up a crucifix and a candle labeled “LOURDES” with prayerful figures carved into the wax. And then I thanked the tiny Jesus when no one picked up the chicken foot. Twenty minutes of my life expired and the drying ink confirmed my slight improvement since previous workshops:
He shuffled into the empty church, letting the heavy doors separate him from the falling snow. Cautiously, he entered the chapel, removed his crocheted cap, and brushed the melted flakes from his coat. Church was never a place where he had felt comfortable. After all, how can you be at ease while a dead guy hangs from the wall? And yet, here he was, plopping down on a wooden pew with a first row ticket to this man’s execution. The bursting belly of an Eastern figure hadn’t seemed to erase his past, no matter how hard he rubbed. And neither had the voodoo doll or the shriveled chicken’s foot. He inhaled the fragrant candles in this room of crimson and cream as they cast dancing shadows along the walls. He cringed and rubbed his palms as he peered behind the altar. There Jesus hung, larger than life and stripped of flesh. A cloth dangled modestly over his loins to…what? Spare the public any discomfort? Railroad spikes had been driven through his skin, splintering bones, and ultimately binding him to the tree that absorbed his last breath.
“And I thought I had problems,” he thought to himself, shifting in his seat.
When it was my turn, I read my piece aloud to the group. As instructed by workshop guidelines, they provided only positive feedback to the impromptu exercise. One man even mentioned how often he has seen the crucifix, but never actually contemplated what it really meant until he heard the phrase “the tree that absorbed his last breath”. To me, that was encouraging.
Until the other members read their pieces.
The hostess had seized a voodoo doll from the trinkets section and somehow created a brilliant piece about a medical student. An essay I couldn’t believe she wrote in 20 minutes. An essay I couldn’t believe I could write, ever. Much less in 20 minutes. “I have seen a human heart,” it began. “I have held one in my hands.” Throughout the piece, she provided grotesque graphics about the intricacies of the human body, claiming at one point that the muscle is “less scarlet than the streaks it leaves on a surgeon’s gloves.” On and on, she continued. Detail after enticingly nauseating detail. The other writers followed suit, using words I’d never heard and referencing people I didn’t know. It was obvious that the lives and talents of these other writers trumped me by at least 25 years. Their work incorporated a raw grittiness and a savory taste of graphic substance that my writing–along with my line of thinking–lack desperately. The way an Indie film differs from a chick flick.
“I’ve never written about that before,” the hostess confessed, although we all would have believed a published doctor had written it. “I don’t even know where it came from.”
Me either. Her prop was a voodoo doll, for goodness sakes. But that made it all the more amazing.
For the second exercise, we were instructed to write a list of four things we enjoy doing. Then write a list of four things we enjoyed doing as children. Then go. I noticed that “Exercise” came fourth on my list of adult activities while “Sports” and “Play” topped the favorites from youth. So I went…
Her aging joints whined audibly. Simply standing had become a struggle, the thinning ligaments in her knees now a film reel replaying the most action-packed moments of her life. She thought of the growing child in her womb. Would she, too, wear a loose-fitting wardrobe stitched together for a boy’s body? Looseness filling the knees of baggy denim instead of airy frocks flying as she twirls gaily in circles? Will she prefer sweatpants that sound like the wind over high-heels that thunder across pavement? Will her most cherished possessions be things she can bounce, hurl, or kick?
And will those passions fade–not from her heart, but from her body–as the clock steals strength from her bones? Like her mother, a youth crippled by activity, removed forever from the summers when fresh earth saturated her nostrils and the knees of her shorts.
“It’s good for your baby if you exercise,” her doctor nudges persuasively. But nowadays play is a chore.
Other than someone mentioning I use good verbs, the room remained silent. So we moved along. Again, we took turns around the room. And, again I listened as everyone else milked more words and lustrous detail out of the brief 20-minute period. At the end of the night, I lingered longer than normal to ask for tips on how to improve.
“I really admire and respect the way everyone here writes,” I admitted to the hostess and one remaining guest. “I was wondering if you could give me some tips as to how I can elevate my writing?”
Both looked puzzled and affirmed that I have been doing well. They even referenced some lines from my writing to illustrate their point. And somehow their kind hearts and supportive words both uplifted and dismayed me.
Perhaps it is the athlete within me, becoming my own harshest critic (as always) and constantly battling to conquer my personal bests. Perhaps it is my Type-A personality that joneses for continual growth toward perfection. Whatever it is, I need a coach-like figure to get me there. I’ve never been the student who can look at a math book and teach myself; but I’ve eagerly absorbed material in the lecture hall.
Often in the sports world, I have been referred to as “coachable”–the kind of kid who seeks advice and strives to know more, to get better. But never in my life have I asked my coach for help with my shooting and received the reply, “Well, your dribbling and passing are fine, so you’re doing great.”
I look forward to critique and feedback. How else can I truly understand my strengths and work to improve my weaknesses? I long to learn from people in the field whom I respect and trust. In fact, I’m dissatisfied otherwise. I struggle to survive without it. And I’d prefer a writing career that endures over time.