The Hard Way

Posted on November 1, 2011


It’s possible that I recently learned a valuable lesson. I qualify that statement because there are certain lessons I’ve learned three hundred times in my life, and if I took an honest look, I’d have to say I need to brush up on them again. I’m even missing those bits of wisdom we were supposed to have gathered in kindergarten. Yes, I wash my hands before I eat, and I try not to hit people or steal their stuff. But the truth is, I learned only two things in that first year of school.

First, I managed to figure out my right hand from my left. I did this with the help of a file cabinet, which stood over in the right front corner of the classroom. When we faced the flag, the file cabinet helped me remember which hand to put over my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. Then over Christmas break, the custodian rearranged the room and when we came back, the file cabinet was in a different place, so I had to revert to the five-second pause and sneaking glances at my classmates. That was the day I stopped trusting furniture, and custodians.

Second, I figured out that if Michael Lucatelli grabbed the brown crayon, he was never letting it go, and I’d be coloring the cows purple again. These were the extra-thick crayons, the kind that made it difficult to stay inside the lines because you had to wrap your whole fist around them, as if you were coloring with a cucumber. They were blunt on the ends, too, I guess so a five-year-old didn’t take out somebody’s eye with them. (I heard this warning at least once a week from my mother. Apparently, anything you could hold in your hand — butter knife, pencil, stick, wooden spoon, even a straw — was a potential menace just waiting for the chance to pluck out an eye. The fact that none of us knew anyone who’d lost an eye in this manner seemed to not mean much.) If you wanted to break one of these crayons, you’d have to lean it against a wall and step on it really hard. But one day, Michael noticed the brown crayon was snapped in half, hanging by its wrapper like a broken arm inside a shirt sleeve. “Hey,” he said while glaring at me from across the table. “Look what you did!” With no interest in the pursuit of justice, at least at that moment, the teacher told me to gather my things. Then she changed my seat, sending me into exile at the other end of the room. That was the day I stopped trusting authority, and Michael Lucatelli.

When I was a teenager, I learned not to cut my own hair. It may not occur to most people to even attempt something like that, but I did. We had a barber in the family, my mother’s eighty-year-old uncle, whose heavy Italian accent and a bullet wound to the throat incurred during World War One made his speech nearly incoherent. His tools included the first pair of scissors ever made; they’d been hand-forged by a blacksmith during the Middle Ages, and had never been sharpened. They looked to be just the kind of instrument that might be used to persuade someone to change religions against their will. The scissors weren’t capable of cutting anything, so my uncle resorted to closing them around the hair and pulling with a sudden jerk of his wrist. Any wriggling, flinching, or screams of agony were met with a loud scolding, which I tried to obey even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. The session would end when he grew tired of either the pulling or the flinching, and I’d run to the bathroom to examine the bare spots and patches of blood.

One day, hearing that my uncle was coming for Sunday dinner, I decided to try my hand at cutting my own hair. Looking into the mirror, I trimmed around the front of my head, which was the only part I could see. Then I reached around back and began blindly snipping away. A few days later, my father took me to a barbershop to repair the damage. When the barber asked me what I’d done to my hair, I lied and said I hadn’t done anything to it. He called two of his colleagues over and said, “Look at this. He said he didn’t cut his hair.” They all laughed, as I sank into the chair and wondered why haircuts didn’t include some form of anesthesia. That was the day I stopped trusting barbers, and mirrors.

As I said, there are many lessons I’ve learned repeatedly. And yet, I somehow remain as blunt as those kindergarten crayons, as dull as my uncle’s scissors. The left side of my brain doesn’t seem to know what my right hand is doing, or even where it is. My mind is a bad haircut that no one else can see. For example, I believe, with great delusion, that I understand my insurance policies, extended warranties, and the details of my checking account fees. I continue to purchase things I’m sure are on sale, but, it turns out, are not. I trust that if the sign says I’ll receive double points today, that I actually will. And when the phone rings at dinnertime and the person on the other end asks me if I have three minutes to participate in a brief survey, I always say yes.

But as I also said, I think I learned a valuable lesson recently. And this time, it may actually stick, because lately I’ve been sharing it with others. In other words, I’ve been giving advice, which is a shocking development in itself.

The lesson came as a result of meeting, however briefly, a lot of fellow bloggers over the past three weeks. I noticed how many of them expressed a lack of confidence, an overwhelming sensitivity to criticism, and a strong sense of doubt about ever connecting with readers. I picked up on these beliefs because I’ve struggled with the same issues for most of my life. But I’ve arrived at this conclusion: The world is never going to love me. Most of the world will never know I exist. And that’s okay, because that isn’t what I should be aiming for. My goal is to do what it takes for me and my potential audience to find each other. I don’t know how big that audience is. It may be seven individuals, or seventy thousand. But there are now seven billion human beings in the world. I can’t possibly connect with all of them. The best I can hope for is a slice, and probably a thin one.

In truth, this is yet another old lesson, revisited. I took a novel writing course in college, and my professor told us that a bestseller doesn’t mean universal acclaim. In fact, he said, you could reach the top of the bestseller list, then spend the rest of your life going door-to-door, searching for someone — anyone — who’s read your book, or has even heard of it.

So the lesson I want to share is that there is an audience that will want to hear what you have to say, and will like the way you say it. But they can’t find you if you’re not out there giving them something to find. For many of us, this is the hardest part. I don’t feel comfortable with most people, mostly because they don’t seem comfortable with me. And yet, I have a need to connect with at least a few of them. So I write, and I interact with strangers. I know that some won’t like me, and most of those will simply walk away. A few, though, will stick around long enough to tell me what a useless jerk I am. But here’s the thing: those people are not part of my slice. They wandered in by mistake and are already on their way out. I need to let them go quietly so I can get back to my real guests.

There was a time when I gave the harsh critic more attention than he deserved. I thought to myself, “This is what I’ve been worried about. A smart person has shown up, someone who sees through my facade and can tell that I’m a fraud.” But that unfairly discounts the people who like what you’re doing. It assumes that the spiteful feedback is somehow more valid than the praise. And it fails to acknowledge that there are people who, for no good reason, seek to tear down what others have tried to build.

I’ve received my share of disapproval. In fact, I got a comment recently that bordered on cruelty. I chose not to dwell on it, but rather to keep it in perspective. Plus, the comment was written in brown crayon, so I’m pretty sure it was just Michael Lucatelli, at it again.

I hope this is the day you stop trusting critics — the ones out there, and the one inside your head. Your audience is waiting.