The Critic and the Kid

  I was the sole obstacle to the goblins, who wanted to bring ruin to a nearby village. The sun rose in the east, illuminating the plate armor of the army marching toward my home. I sensed their presence long ago and was prepared; I donned my black robe, fitted with gold accents and gems, and grabbed my staff. I took a deep breath and exited my home to encounter the army. Their eyes, thousands of them, focused on me. I knew they would attack soon. As they charged I began letting loose spells from the tip of my staff. My magic fire projectiles flew into the crowds, but the dead were easily replaced. The goblins had no sense of retreat or surrender so the battle continued throughout the day. I used walls of fire and ice to protect myself from possible ambushes. Without growing tired and without being injured, I continued my destructive display of power. Night began to fall; the world began to change. The green hills in the distance became towering palm trees, the battlefield a grass field no bigger than 200 yards, and my small wizard’s hovel became a two-story home. From that beige building, my mother called me in for dinner.

  I was eight years old and extremely imaginative. My friends and I would spend hours outside near home, planning and playing out stories of various heroes. I’ve been a masterful wizard, an expert thief and a fearsome warrior. No matter the story, my friends and I were always extremely powerful and had no concept of weakness. These imagined plots were also completely unhindered by self-conscious or social expectation. It was the only moment I remember where my creative ability was free from either of these things. Before I started studying music in third grade, I had no concept of self-criticism; the voice of my subconscious mind that tells me how to improve what I’m doing.
  
  Elementary school music didn’t expect nor urge me to play perfectly. From my recollection, it hardly even emphasized playing well. The goal was to get students comfortable with playing music right or wrong. Despite the lack of expectations, I always strived to reach a certain expectation of myself. A wrong note was wrong and needed to be corrected. And when I was unable to meet my own expectations, I forced myself to practice harder. Even though my critic was developing well, I was still an average musician. My high school music program changed how I played music; it wasn’t about playing well but about playing perfectly. Perfection was a tiring pursuit that was more tiring than it was fun. When news came of a new band director, I felt optimistic that the process would be more fun and less tiring. Instead he was the extreme of my previous instructor.

   “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect,” was his mantra. He held us to his ideal of music perfectionism, and I believe now that many of us also wanted to meet that standard for him. But after a while we weren’t enjoying the process anymore and decided to voice our concerns. I was often tired and  in band too many hours outside of class in hopes of reaching a potentially impossible goal. He told us all that practice doesn’t have to be fun; the fun is in being good musicians. I wanted more than anything to be a good musician. Every step became a chance to make micro-corrections. It wasn’t just about playing wrong notes now. If I played a dynamic wrong or played out of tune, I would write in a correction, then chastise myself. Over time the reprimands grew more severe. I was chasing the dream of perfection and expected no less from myself. Any deviation from what I saw as perfect deserved chastisement. I felt the burden of this pursuit and couldn’t sleep at night from the stress. Nighttime was a chance to reflect on my errors, which made me anxious about making the same ones the next day. But slowly my inner criticisms changed from objective comments to personal attacks.

  My high school band was playing a concert. I was a tuba player, so I sat at the back of the wind band. We were dressed in our sharpest slacks and button-up shirts. The stage was lit and the house lights were off. The director stood in front of us, poised, his eyes bright with hope that we wouldn’t mess up. I had never felt tense by performing on stage before. I’ve done it since elementary school and so had had a lot of practice, but something inside me gave in. The piece started, and I forgot about the tension for a moment. But about halfway through the piece I played a wrong note. The crowd probably didn’t notice but I knew I made a mistake. My teacher didn’t even make a comment about the mistake afterward. Still, I knew I made the mistake. Even after doing an otherwise excellent job I knew I had to be punished for my mistake. After the concert, thoughts flooded my mind telling me I was worthless or that I would never amount to anything. And it didn’t stop: Thoughts like this continued for an hour or so until I was finally able to get some rest. This was the moment my self-critic took control.

  The critic deemed me unfit for things that would bring me benefit or happiness. It was why I was so afraid to learn to drive; if I couldn’t focus on a single task, how could I be expected to drive? I was not fit to drive, or I’d cause an accident. I couldn’t teach myself to draw, couldn’t be more sociable, couldn’t strive for excellence in any way because my critic had already seen me as unfit for any of these things. “Awkward”, “untalented” and “clumsy” were a few (and easily the least vulgar) ways I’ve described myself to stop myself from venturing into the unknown. Even as I write this the self-deprecator warns that what I’m writing is complete garbage. But the instinct to endlessly correct ad infinitum doesn’t control me anymore.

  I was in the middle of writing my first short stories after having been on a several-year hiatus from the craft. I was drawn back to write, but the critic immediately reminded me that whatever I wrote would be terrible. I ignored it at first; I knew nothing was perfect on the first draft and the stories would need thorough editing before I thought they were “good.” As I pressed on the voice grew more frequent, constantly saying, “You can’t do this.” I grew frustrated and stopped for a moment. I sat at my small, itchy-fabric chair and stared at my desktop. Before long I started to daydream. The vomit-yellow walls of my apartment melted away and gave way to trees with vibrant green leaves. Without reason I hid behind a tree whose trunk was as wide as I was tall. The shadows of the forest were beginning to grow long and dark, marking the start of sunset.

  There were no ambient animal sounds, only a single animalistic growl. Just beyond the tree was a sabertooth tiger stalking its prey. As I stood in fear, I came to know the memories of this character. The tiger and I were the last remaining animals on the planet. The tiger hunted me down for days and confronted me at last the day before. I ran with all the energy I had, but that wasn’t enough, I was tired and weak. It wanted to devour my entire existence, and I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. If I didn’t make a stand, I would lose to the tiger. I was tired of losing. At last, I charged the anima and let out a deep yell — an echo to my primitive ancestors. We wrestled, my arms fighting to keep the beast’s mouth shut to no avail. Its jaws were too strong for me to keep closed and I lost my grip. The beast clawed across my chest and I fell to the ground. Two massive paws rested on my chest. I started to hear my ribs cracking. I was exhausted, beaten and bloodied. I was sprawled out on the floor, awaiting my demise. The tiger snapped its jaws and roared to signal his victory. As he moved to my throat I found a fist-sized rock. I grabbed it and began to pound into the beast’s face. Blood spurted into my own as I continued in a blood-boiling frenzy. The beast was slain and I exhausted.

  Reality returned and the half-blank page still mocked me. I wasn’t all-powerful like I thought I was as a child. I was an average man with his own sort of problems. I was weighed down by personal demons and memories of failure. I wanted to stop, realizing that my weaknesses would continue to attack the things I’m self-conscious about, but I thought of how I reacted to the tiger in my daydream. I placed my hands on the keyboard and started writing. I knew the voice well by this point and knew it didn’t control me; it could only scare me into what it wanted me to do. If I could ignore the fear behind the critic it would become ineffective. I typed slowly. The “you idiot” and “no one will read this” thoughts continued, but a feeling much stronger than them started to shine: the overwhelming desire to create.

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11 thoughts on “The Critic and the Kid

  1. From one perfectionist to another, cut yourself some freaking slack. I have to yell at myself before I loosen up sometimes. Ugh, why do we do this!? We’ve seriously got to learn to be okay with little mistakes. *punches stupid stubborn self*

    Liked by 2 people

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