My second stepfather was quick with his fists. He would escalate disagreements with waiters into brawls in parking lots. He threw chairs in parent-teacher conferences. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull the car over and reach into the back seat to swing at me and my little sister. He was six feet tall with meaty forearms covered with red hairs. When I was ten years old, his right hand left an imprint on my left cheek which I wore to school for a week.
We moved a lot when I was little and, as the new kid, I was an easy target for bullies. I was tripped, teased, and occasionally had to get stitches. I was told to just walk away or to stand up for myself or to name names, but nothing made much difference. I was a wimp and a weed.
I’m no longer the new kid. And my second stepfather has been dead of pancreatic cancer for over a decade. These days, the only likely sources of physical violence I encounter are drunks and madmen. I live in Greenwich Village so there are a fair number of each around but I haven’t been struck since a large, intoxicated man appeared out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground in Washington DC. That was during the first Clinton Administration. Except for 9/11, the Bush and Obama years have been without incident.
It’s pretty unusual to see an adult strike a child in public these days. When it happens, it seems so barbaric, like witnessing a street fight. No doubt family services will soon be called, courts, foster care, but when I was a kid, it was an everyday thing, never discussed with outsiders, a family affair. I can’t imagine striking Jack. He’s taller than me these days and goes to the gym all the time, but even when he was knee-high, I would never have turned my frustration into any sort of physical response. It just wasn’t in me.
But what is in me is the battle against the impending threat. While I haven’t been physically assaulted in this millennium, a part of me is ever vigilant, waiting for an attack. It’s the part of me that bruises too easily. My ego. The slings and arrows of garden-variety disagreements and critiques can still sting disproportionately. A blog comment, a client request, a passing suggestion from my girlfriend, all can raise the specter of my second stepfather, his shadow on my doorstep. My only weapons are flimsy and malfunctioning: defensiveness, sarcasm, withdrawal — the sorts of things that do me more harm than good.
I have long been working on toughening up. I’ve had to. I spent decades in the trenches of advertising where curt dismissal was part of the job, where hard-earned ideas would ride out of conference rooms on their shields, where creative competitions are called “gang bangs.” I have spent decades on the Internet too, where anonymous trolls are free to lumber in, 24/7, and empty their bowels on my creations with the click of a mouse.
Here’s what I tell myself, not always successfully:
A) Everyone has the right to an opinion.
B) Each critique is an opportunity to better my work.
C) My second stepfather is dead. Even if he does live on in my head.
I force myself to first take a deep breath and try to clear the fog of emotion. This is now. It is not the past. (I know, I know. Easier said than done).
Then I consider the content of the input. (God, even the way I wrote that last sentence shows how tightly I clutch the reins). I look at my idea as objectively as I can, as if it was not mine, unvested — and then I apply the critique. Is it helpful? Can I use it? If so, all good. Thanks very much for saving me from myself. Now I can do better.
But if I am unsure of the critique, if it seems not to fit at all with the way I see the situation, then it’s time to consider the intention behind it. Is the critic there to help? Or to throw a fist? Do they want me and my idea to succeed? Or will they profit in some way from my failure? Will it make them bigger? Will it prop up their vanity and insecurity? Because if their motives are suspect, maybe their criticism is too.
This is easier said than done, but I think it’s right.
Whatever sort of childhood you’ve had, being creative thins your skin. You take your work so personally. You have to, that why you care enough to make it good. Not because of the money or the acclaim but because it’s a part of you that you are putting out there.
But remember that the world is essentially kind and welcoming. The people who matter want you to succeed. They will collaborate with you to help you make your work as good as it can be, because good work makes the world a better place for all of us. And the assholes? They see your success as further proof of their own failures. That’s not your concern.
Unfortunately, I have long given my second stepfather a sort of immortality by letting him enter my dreams. But I won’t let him crush them too.