My biggest mistake, as I looked at the thank-you note covered with red correction marks, was that I had forgotten to self-edit. And yet, that was no mistake, really. It was the beginning of true freedom.
I was in my twenties. I still remember exactly where I was standing in my Lincoln Park gray-stone apartment. I had brought up the mail, excited to see what looked like a letter from my mother. I opened the envelope to find no letter, no words of love—just a thank-you note I had sent her, returned to me with red correction marks all over it.
Still hurts when I write about it.
I had foregone my usual protective armor with my mother—and yes, I needed it—to write her a heartfelt and effusive thank-you note. My mother preferred the Chicago Manual of Style to effusiveness. And outpourings of the heart were simply embarrassing to her.
In that moment, one which I now realize truly was pivotal in my life, I had a choice. To go back to the self-editing I had done for so many years to be able to survive in my mother’s house—or to continue to forge my own path, hundreds of miles away, in Chicago. To go from girl seeking approval to woman who knew those red marks said far more about my mother than about me. To love her as best I could, flawed as she was—and promise myself I would not have children unless I knew I could save them from the bits of me that might even closely resemble what I was holding in my hands at that moment.
I decided up on the latter. From deep in my soul, a voice wiser than I was at that moment told me that I was not put on earth to edit who I was for others. None of us are. And while it was a shame I had a mother who felt I needed editing—instead of loving me in all my glory—it did not foretell my future.
I cringe now when I hear executives on a call who are sarcastic or dismissive of their “underlings.” I treasure working with those who fight for their team, who take into account all opinions regardless of seniority, who know the gentle but straightforward art of mentoring.
Most of us put our heart and soul into what we do. Whether we write, or sing, or build bridges, or cure sick children—we put ourselves on the line. The artists of life do that, at least. And most of us can spot one of those a mile away. As opposed to those who are in it for the bonus, the ego boost, the recognition.
Learning not to edit oneself is something many of us don’t like to talk about. We prefer to pretend we don’t do it. But most of us do. One of the most annoying things about writing a blog lately is feeling hamstrung by who might be reading and what they’ll think—not the world at large, but those I know. And not the ones that love me—the voyeurs who read to glean pieces of me without sharing similar pieces of themselves. I’ve had to decide, like I did in that gray-stone a couple of decades ago, that self-expression is really one of the reasons I am here. And I cheat myself, as well as those I touch, by reining it in for those who have their red pen at the ready.
My youngest recently took a test to gauge his empathy quotient as part of a school assignment. He did not score very high. He came home wondering if this was ok—or if that meant something was wrong with him. I assured him he had scored within normal range, just on the lower end. And even though I wish at times he could be more empathetic, I realize he has come here to rock the science world or put people back together as a surgeon. I am not sure he could be as focused as he is if he were wired differently. A surgeon needs a certain amount of distance to save a life. We talked about this and I assured him once again that he is enough. That he is loved just as he is.
I have all but banned the red pens from my house, you see, hoping that my children will never perfect the painful art of the self-edit.
As the inimitable Shirley MacLaine put it in her recent movie, ”The Last Word”: “Please don’t have a nice day. Have a day that matters. Have a day that means something.”
Throw away your red pens, people. No one that does anything that matters pays attention to them anyway.