Yesterday I got up on a stage and read aloud a piece I'd furiously worked on for the previous three days, whereupon I was judged by a panel of judges and given a score. It was a fairly middling performance; only my second, at least in this format. There was praise, there was criticism, as far as the contest went I was in the middle of the pack. I had no real expectations of glory or winning. In fact, things went just about as I expected them to. There were no hard feelings, no harsh words. But these people were my friends, and I was surrounded by people I knew who were also creative, and even despite this everything was perfectly fine.
When I got home, I immediately went to a collection of old liquor bottles on the floor by the fireplace (not refuse, we were in the process of redecorating) and kicked them, hard. I wanted something to break. This was the reason I hadn't wanted to do perform; why my friend the host had to twist my arm to get me to enter. I yelled. I kicked. I screamed. Took more out on Kari than I had any right to. This wasn't her fault. She was simply convenient. Deserved absolutely none of it. This is what happens when I grow frustrated.
I've long wondered where this stifling perfectionism came from. I remember the sound of my piano teacher's voice, never punishing me for mistakes, but in her encouragement always that disappointment just beyond the words. You're better than this. Or my parents, wondering where the extra points went. They never said as much, of course. I really don't believe that kind of pressure happens so directly (the whole "Tiger Mom" phenomenon notwithstanding). I suppose in many ways the story of my writing is the story of my piano-playing, and both the cause and effect of always feeling like I had talent, but never the ability to turn it into something real.
If my childhood had a title, the word "potential" would figure prominently. It was all I ever heard about. I think it was one of the things that held my parents marriage together when little else would. I suppose they had good reason. I did well in school, I was both artistic and musical, and I've always had a natural curiosity and desire to learn. If I wanted to try something, they let me take it to its natural conclusion. Praise no matter what I did. Encouragement. But laced within it a sense of expectation. I was going to succeed at whatever what I did. So when I inevitably didn't (at least not all the time), there was always that moment of questioning. Me, the anointed one, the superhuman genius who could do anything he put his mind to. Why couldn't I be a superstar? I'm better than this.
Praise used ineffectively is just as damaging as no praise at all. Love used the wrong way is as harmful as no love at all. Piano was one of those things where I really shined. I practiced every day, even if I didn't always want to. The instrument became second nature. Give me sheet music of a Beethoven Sonata and I could play it flawlessly. Make you feel what Beethoven felt. Parents and teachers swooned. Adults took me more and more seriously. It wasn't all just about the piano, but that was the most out in the open, and so it stings the most. Whatever strife I had with my peers was rendered irrelevant. I had a world to retreat to. A safe place where I was elevated to the status of Greek hero. Hercules. Achilles.
If you've read this blog before, it isn't hard to figure out what happened next. As much as I've improved my life and as far as I've come, I still can't seem to make myself back into that superhuman at the Steinway. Nevermind that the boy didn't really exist. The praise, the adoration, it either feels so empty as to be rendered meaningless, or worse, it was warranted and look what I've become. There's always the worst of both worlds as well: all praise is empty, I'm actually a pathetic loser with delusions of grandeur. Some of us choose to call this phenomenon the self-fulfilling prophecy. It just so happen this is exactly the trap my mother fell into and never did manage to escape.
Succeeding, I've come to understand, means not succeeding for a while. It also means not succeeding more often than the once or twice a year you work up the nerve to try. It's one of life's most vibrant contradictions. One I'm still figuring out. This is not to blame my parents or my piano teacher or anyone else for my internalizing it. Not only is that unfair to them, it's also incorrect. I have no doubt they meant every word they said. Intentions matter far more to me than results. This makes it harder, I suppose, but it also clarifies. All I can do is try, and let myself be wounded. There is literally no other way to learn.