My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My Highest Compliment

This is NOT my mother.
Though I often did make my mother pull her hair out.
But images on Google that are labeled for
commercial reuse are tough to find.
Especially of my mother.
I wouldn't realize it for many years, but my mother paid me my highest writing compliments way back when I was a little tyke.  She did it with flushed cheeks and clenched fists, before she grounded me for a week or banished me to my room.  Before the yelling started.  Later, she did it with pressed lips and lectures about disappointment, and I needed an Epi-pen shoved directly into my heart after an hour not to slide into blissful unconsciousness.

And now, twenty-something years later, they are among my most cherished memories.

We miss so many of the real moments of genuine praise.  They slip past us at the time and sink into the sludge of our mercurial memories and filters and blinders, and they only drift back to the surface of our thoughts on their own time and in their own way when we are quietly contemplating something completely different.  "Oh," we think, "I didn't realize at the time what that really meant and how significant it was.  And here I was just thinking about how everything is better with bacon....including a groupie threesome."

Praise, even high praise, can wash over us if it comes in the form of flattery.  Compliments are cotton candy of the praise world.  They may taste sweet (sometimes painfully so) and give you a brief swell of energy, but their effects are short lived and have an inevitable and disproportionate crash.  And a million of them can't take the place of one solid chunk of negativity.

But there are other forms of praise that are like seven grain bread with dried fruits and nuts in it.  Imitation, for example.  Imitation is like dried fruits and nuts.  Yes it is.

If my mother had said: "You can write.  This is good writing.  I bequeath you with the title of 'good writer,'" I very much doubt that decades later I would be writing an entry about it.  I probably wouldn't even remember it...maybe if it had involved a knighting ceremony with an actual sword.

I was a kid.  I cared that I was getting yelled at.  I cared that I was getting into trouble.  I cared that I was getting grounded and I (actually) didn't deserve it this time.  I burned with rage and injustice.  Of course I burned with rage and injustice when I was asked to set the table after my parents had cooked for two hours, so I can't really trust that I had the most objective feelings about things. But I never saw until YEARS later the subtext of what was going on in those moments and what my mom was telling me without ever meaning to.

"You didn't write this, Chris," she would say to me.  "Where did you copy this from?"

"I didn't," I swore (and I hadn't).  "I wrote it myself."  (And I had.)

"You couldn't have written this, honey.  It sounds like it came straight out of Cliffs notes.  Did one of your little friends' parents get them a Cliffs notes?"

If I was lucky, she made me sit down and write it again in front of her. Usually what I got for my trouble was a half-hearted concession: "well, there's clearly nothing wrong with your memory."  If I wasn't so lucky, I ended up on the business end of one of those punishments that only sounds awful when you're a kid.  (Seriously, I look FORWARD to going to my room these days.)

What I didn't realize until years later--what you've probably picked up on already--is that my mother, the English major, was having trouble discerning a teen-ager's writing from something copied out of a professional publication.

And that this event played out multiple times.

Every time she accused me of plagiarism, all I cared about was that I was going to get in trouble. Because I wasn't noticing that I was being given some of the highest praise imaginable--an inability to tell my writing from "the real thing."

Now I realize ever one of those moments was my mother telling me, without telling me, that I was good--pretty darned good.  No amount of fluffy praise ("Oh this is just so good!  You're just my little writer!") could ever, EVER take the place of any one of those knock-down-drag-out fights, and each is worth a hundred pictures stuck with magnets to the refrigerator.

I know moms are supposed to tell their kids they're awesome and everything they do is awesome.  And when kids do something artistic, moms are supposed to encourage their creativity by telling them they are simply wonderful, and they have the Midas touch.  That's one of the eight great lies moms are required by the mom statute of motherhood to tell (along with "It'll make you strong like Popeye," and "It won't hurt that much.")

Me? I'll take an accusation of plagiarism any day.  Because some twenty-five years later, I still remember it as one of the highest compliments I ever got.

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