The Art of Defensiveness

For weeks, I’ve been excited and anxious to start a writers’ workshop. I need critiquing and to learn how to revise and edit better. The workshop has started and I’ve gotten my first critique. My gut response, my very first thoughts out of the gate were: “Screw you! Your comments don’t even make sense. What are your credentials again?” Even as I’m thinking that, I start laughing at myself. I’m skilled at defensiveness. My husband said, “You’ll process the comments in about a year or so.” Having been the recipient and instigator of my retorts, he knows that I’ll be a reasonable person. Eventually.

I think on some days, I walk out into the world wearing a “Whadda you lookin’ at?” expression on my face. I have a curiosity about this reaction. My armor is well-worn and heavy, exhausting to always have on. How do you re-train yourself to stay open, to let things flow through and over you, to take in what you need and discard the rest?

I was trained at an early age to see that nothing in this world was “good enough”, including myself. No matter what self-revelation or epiphany I’ve discovered or had, this is a core point that I struggle with daily – the essential feeling that I could always be better. Always needing to improve is partly cultural. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post “Being Just Right“, we are groomed as consumers to be perpetually dissatisfied with ourselves. The main message is: “You are not good enough as you are.” Fighting external and internal messages in order to maintain some semblance of personal satisfaction requires protection, an ability to fend off those messages and move on.

Becoming skilled in the art of defensiveness means that ofttimes, even the positive messages fail to penetrate. The old “she can’t take a compliment” deal. It’s not modesty. It’s my habit of not letting you or anybody else say jack shit about me. So there. Now let me take this pistol and shoot myself in the other foot. When I compliment someone and they brush it off, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and yell “Don’t you get it? You’re awesome!”

I now force myself to say “thank you” in the face of compliments. Gratitude is much more appealing than coming up with five million reasons for why that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Although I will always suspect that they don’t. This re-training may take awhile, but if I hope to gain skills, I need to be open to the teaching.

In taekwondo sparring, you bow to your partner/opponent to show respect, before and after the match. After delivering and receiving repeated kicks and strikes, you bow and then you shake their hand and say : 감사합니다 (kamsahamnida), which is Korean for “thank you”. Initially, I thought sardonically “thank you for beating the crap out of me, now I’ll be limping for a week”. Now I’ve learned to think “thank you for teaching me”.  So, I bow to my writing instructor: I will humbly revise according to your suggestions. Thank you for teaching me.

Back-to-School Special: The AB…ZZZZZZZZZs

Like many parents who have spent the summer with their children, I’m counting down the hours before the start of school. I will also be participating in a school of sorts. Next week, I start a writers’ workshop that runs for a couple of months. I’ve attended writers’ workshops before and have a pronounced aversion to them.

The Loft Literary Center has, with a sheer stroke of agoraphobic genius (and for those of us who loathe trying to find parking downtown), added online workshops to its curriculum. No more trying to avert my eyes while listening to Lonely Dude’s awkward porn (did I date you?). No need to doodle while Ms. Trivial Pursuit details her pedicure and why it makes her feel oh so pretty. No more gritting teeth through “foreshadowing that solves your mystery on the first page” mysteries. I have to admit, I’m a really unhelpful workshop colleague. I have a problem that has plagued me most of my life. The human voice puts me to sleep. And when I must stay awake against my natural inclination to snooze, I get downright mean.

I have never been a particularly good student. When I started college after my Army stint, I was determined to be the student I thought I should be, but it only took one professor to put me into a coma. He was about 400 years old and read his lecture from a binder while sitting at a desk. His notes made a crinkly sound, dried from age and repeated use. It was Ancient Near Eastern History loaded up with Sobekhoteps and Mentuhoteps, so my class notes were neatly written for about half a notebook page before a single line slid down to the bottom of the page, ending with a spot of drool, like the period on an exclamation point.

Even in classes with charismatic teachers, it was only guaranteed that I would finish one page of notes before spending the rest of the time fidgeting, prying my eyelids open and imagining what various pairings of classmates would look like if they were to have sex. Hey – I’d rather be a mental perv than snort myself awake to an entire classroom of people staring at me. My fear was not exaggerated – it really happened to me. Twice.

My nodding off has not been limited to the academic world. I headed off into the business world engaged and enthused until the very first meeting – company orientation. I stayed focused long enough to figure out when I would get paid and where the table with the bagels was located. I dread meetings around conference tables, where everyone can see my head lolling and then snapping to attention as I try to keep myself awake. It’s sheer torture.

The only theory that I have about this problem, is that I like to fall asleep listening to books on tape and sometimes news on the radio. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, when I would hoard a little transistor under my pillow. As an adult, I listen to anything read by Jim Dale (the Harry Potter audiobook reader) or the news on NPR and I conk out. I’m no good in churches, concerts where there’s too much verbal “fill”, plays that don’t do frequent scenery changes and technology discussions with my husband (okay, that might be about the subject matter). I can read for hours on end, but read to me and you’ve got a small window before my nose starts softly whistling and my head flops forward.

Sometimes you just have to embrace your limitations and find solutions to work around them. The online forum might very well be the place I learn best. At the very least, I’m hoping to be a kinder, more professional workshop classmate. Just don’t expect me at any of your readings.