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.
54 Comments Add yours
This is why you were on my Advent Calendar, Kristine. Somehow I missed this post but your wonderful way of directing us to past posts, really works!
You are the best you, you can be! No red pens here!
Now, I shall go back to the original programming (today’s Jan. 1, 2019 post)!
Thank you, Dale! I’m all for retiring the red pens also:).
This is something I have been struggling with. Thank you for sharing. So profound
Thank you:). I think it’s something many of us struggle with!
I have a difficult mother too. I’ve hung in there, but choose my moments to withdraw when the drama gets to be too much. She too could be pointlessly critical about English grammar, and tortured a local sports writer when he slipped up. He finally wrote back and told her to get a life. My mother was partly hurt by his letter and partly triumphant that she had managed to get under his skin.
I had to reassure my son when he was in high school. His sister had a better academic record, and Alan felt stupid by comparison. I listed his strengths and his sister’s strengths, and told him about the qualities and talents that I thought were unique to him. His shoulders dropped as he relaxed, and I got the impression that he saw himself in a better way. We didn’t always get along back then, but I think that I did him a good service that day.
I love that you chose to shore him up. So many parents harp on the areas that need work, not realizing that is the voice that becomes ingrained in a child’s head. As I’ve gotten wiser, I see more clearly those that choose being “right” over being happy. I’m not saying I’m not sometimes guilty of it, but I do not think in the end our mothers’ obsession with the details brings happiness. Brings to mind the saying about a rock in a river not fighting the current, but being shaped and smoothed by it instead.
That’s one tough mother…ouch! Mine is as well (we gave up on one another in 2011 and I am her only child.) She could be verbally brutal and hyper-critical, without the compensatory hugs, etc. I left her care at 14 to live with my father (and his [sigh] tough girlfriend 13 years older than me.) Hardly a nurturing environment.
People who don’t know my emotional history can’t understand me or my fearlessness. What on earth do I have to lose? The “approval” of people who love to withhold it? No thanks.
Ouch. You had it on both ends. I, like you, tend to cut to the quick of a matter. I am sure that has to do with our upbringing. And learning that discernment of that sort is actually a talent to be used.
Indeed I did. I’m often told — not with admiration — that I’m very direct. After a childhood like that, you bet I am.
Hi – Congratulations on a great response to your son. I don’t quite grasp an empathy quotient, but I am glad he has a mother who will tell him he is fine, and that differences among us are OK, and even beneficial. As for self-edit (wish me luck) – I think maybe communicating from emotion will help. Thank you.
Us mothers and fathers do so much to either help them grow or quash them, don’t we? I try to choose my words carefully:).
ooof I wish I could get rid of my internal editor. He is brutal and jaded. As I read this, I heard him reminding me: “not good enough.” However, I still have the deciding vote, and I agree with you, often the best in me- the parts that resonate with others – are those that I don’t self-edit to death.
Kick that sucker in the keister and keep going :-).
hehehe I think I’m gonna try to kick that keister in the sucker. Maybe that’ll werk 😉
Thanks for this insightful post, Kristine. I too thought of the Philip Larkin poem. I hope as a generation we are less critical and more accepting of the differences in our children and the different paths their lives may take. There are some cool comments here too. Love the “virtual streaking” image 🙂
The Larkin poem was new to me . . . he certainly doesn’t mince words! Who knew we were virtual exhibitionists, eh? 🙂
Kay the fact that you found a way to stay in touch with your mum, while still honouring who you are, says a lot about the power of love and courage. It must have taken guts to do that. Thank you for reminding us that words matter so much more than grammar or spelling. As writers we can sometimes lose sight of that.
Thank you, Deb. It was hard, I must say. Hard as a teen, hard in college, hard after college. When I had kids, I saw a much different side of her with them. I wish she could have shown it more to me as I grew up.
Very beautiful and great lessons in here for all of us.
Thanks for stopping by and reading. I appreciate the kind words!
Wow. Wow. Wow. This post is one that everyone needs to read over and over again. Nobody should ever tell us who we are, and I am so glad you found a way to stay true to you and your inner voice. Keep writing. This is amazing!
Thank you:). I think the toughest part was the mother/child bit. We are taught that it should be unconditional, positive, etc. When your mother does not offer that to you, the reaction is visceral. But you are right–even a parent should not tell us who we “should” be.
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, my mother inflicted pain so intense it wasn’t until a year ago that I was able to rise above it, and not let it damage me any longer. And I am 45. But, better late than never – I feel like I am finally living the life I am meant to, and it feels great!
Ouch. I’m so sorry. And yet, wonderful that you’ve risen above it! I think my mother–the good and not so great parts–really shaped who I am in many ways. And I’m now, in hindsight, thankful for both. The world can be tough–and I feel not much intimidates me, in part, because of my upbringing.
You nailed it. There isn’t one thing I would change. I am grateful for all of it and know that despite the pain, those experiences are the reason I am the person I am today – thank goodness for that! I am sorry your mom made things difficult for you, but look at you go now…you are strong and a really amazing person! Cool!
Amen, Amen, Amen. There is so much here but I’m still trying to get past the corrected card you received from your mother. That’s crazy.
Blogging should be a source of freedom. If it can’t be had here, then where? We should be writing for ourselves here, exposing ourselves for what makes us feel good, not anyone else. If that happens as a result of our thoughts then consider it a bonus.
No rules, no worries, no intimidations and no damn red pens!!..:)
Amen to that! So blogging is the virtual equivalent of streaking? 🙂 Now, don’t let me put words in your mouth, George . . .Seriously, I do feel the posts that make a difference are from the true artists of life–painfully honest, whether we’re laughing or crying.
Couldn’t agree more. Love that comparison to streaking. There’s a short movie there somewhere…:)
Streaking? I nearly wet myself Kristine…I love it. Wait till I tell my 87 year old mom I’ve been streaking, she’ll fall off her chair 😀
I loved that post and am so glad to have stumbled upon your page.
Thanks so much for the kind words and the stumbling:). Glad to see you here.
It is a pity that the schools themselves are such a red pen Kristine. They cannot focus on bringing an individual through its system, but resort to a one size fits all, creating more problems than it is worth. They focus on that pitch of you can only be successful when ‘we can make a brilliant physical and mental specimen out of you’, and completely ignore the main tenant of life, the emotional, the empathetic and feeling creature that we are actually made from.
One day, it will be the ‘norm’, to guide those like a mother does (with the balance of a father), in school and at home so that there will be no such emphasis and unbalance to create these expectations that torment us for the rest of our lives.
But then again…what mountain would there be to climb if they didn’t…and find that beauty within? 😀
I bet God doesn’t have a red pen! 😀
A very beautifully written piece my friend, I detect your heart coming through with much wisdom. Take a bow 😀 ❤
Thank you, as always, for your wise thoughts. I know God does not have a red pen! Know it without a doubt :-). I think that is probably a state we can all strive for…
Those red pens can follow us through every phase of life! Brava to you for having the courage to say “No More” you have changed the course for your children and their children to come.,You always inspire me Kristine 📝❤️💛
Are, that last bit brought a tear to my eye. Thank you. Sometimes, it’s the days I feel The least inspirational that I think I actually inspire the most :-). And you always inspire me with your wise words.
We can remind each other of this important truth! Have a great day 💕
This post really struck several chords with me. I love the honesty of your writing and the self-awareness and courage that go hand in hand with that. I was reminded of the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ [https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/48419]. I won’t quote it on your blog as I don’t know your readers’ feelings about swearing, and I find it a bit too cynical but there is such a germ of truth there.
Man-he is a cynic :-). But you’re right-there is definitely a kernel of truth in there. I wrote a blog post once about the “bad stuff” stopping with me. While that is a lofty goal and I have not been able to reach all my self- self-improvement goals, I am proud that there are some things I did not want to visit upon my children and haven’t. I was truly blessed to have the parents that I had. And I know that as a soul, I chose them to learn some very specific lessons. I just now try to focus on learning through joy rather than pain. I find it much preferable :-).
I know what you mean about not parenting our kids the way our parents raised us. My mother had an amazing ability to stifle adventure and spontaneity and I’ve tried really, really hard not to do that with my son — and not to let her do it either.
Thank goodness you have chosen self-expression for your true way. And it is so wonderful that you understand your son’s way likely is different from yours. Whether you are communicating that to him or helping us value life without the red marks, your expression, wisdom and insights give so much to your readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Aw, you touched my writer’s heart. Thank you. Truly. I am sure there are times those who love me wish for less self-expression:). But most of the time, they put up with it just fine . . .
Luckily you learned the right lessons in life from such a harsh teacher.
I’m actually a big fan of learning through joy now–do as much of that as I can:).
Your mother probably helped you become the powerful writer you are by continually raising the bar. But I can’t imagine how deeply that marked-up thank you note must have wounded you, and this grieves me. The thing I love most about your writing is your apparent fearlessness, your willingness to talk about things more timid souls might fear to bring up. We all have our detractors and naysayers. The best way to deal with them is to be like a river and flow around and past stones and brambles obstructing the way. My friend, your writing flows beautifully. I am proud of, and inspired by, you. xoxo
Thanks so much, Amy. You are always so kind. I try to stay just this side of oversharing:). But, I feel if I don’t write about the real bits of life, I’m–dare I say–self editing too much. I love your idea of flowing around. I’ve tried to allow, rather than make, things happen lately. With lovely results. I think you may be on to something:). XXOO
So, the first week into a new job (which I started just after giving birth to my first child), I had to give a presentation. I didn’t really know the company as well as I should have to be giving the presentation, but it didn’t matter to those deciding. The potential clients were impressed and we chatted for several minutes after the presentation. However, a co-worker pulled me to the side to tell me that I said “ummm” too many times and it was distracting. This was his only feedback. I remember how deflating it was. I remember feeling already like I wasn’t as sharp as I was before the baby (mama brain, I now call it), and now here was proof. I’m glad you were able to forge a different path and learn early-on that those criticisms aren’t truly a reflection of you. It’s taken me years to finally understand that. Now I constantly check myself to make sure that I don’t allow someone else’s criticism to silence me — the authentic me. I hope you continue forging the path you started all those years ago. You’re definitely on to something!
Ugh. I hate to hear stories like this! Even a student teacher is taught to start with the positives and then talk about areas for improvement. The most secure people I know don’t pull punches–but they check their ego at the door, showing grace and class. I’m sorry that was your start! And glad it was years ago, right?:).
Self expression is so important, and when we become inhibited by the red pen… it takes the true self out of the equation.
You said it! We take ourselves out of the equation–and then what, really, is left?
“And I cheat myself, as well as those I touch, by reining it in for those who have their red pen at the ready.” I have these moments, too. As I age, less and less do they get center stage. After all, it is my “one wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver has revealed. I suspect no editing is the preference. Great post and quite timely for me. Thank you.
Thank you, Karen! I’m glad this one resonated with you. Funny you should mention Mary Oliver, because her books are just what I pull out when I’m feeling the self edit coming on. She is a great example of someone who just went for it each and every time . . .