Pay What You Owe

October 18, 1984

Dear Marta,

I just talked with your grandmother over the telephone, so let’s get the unpleasant business out of the way. She tells me that she paid part of the doctor’s bill for your examination of your ankle. How is that? Did I not give you $150. in cash? Please pay the amount you owe her and send me the bill as I requested.

Not only have you been dishonest (and I assume that is why you haven’t written), but you added further fuel to the list of grievances my mother has against me. She thought you had sent me the bill &, therefore, she thought I was being irresponsible and not paying her what I owed her.

I asked her t speak to you about it, and you will give her the money. If she says you don’t have to, you will say that you apologize & that you must give her what is due. If you don’t have the money now, then you will pay her as you can. I’m sure this matter can be cleared up by Thanksgiving.

Let’s start right now by you writing me a letter about this matter. I think you owe me an apology and an explanation. I love you a lot; I love you as much as there can be.

Your mother

I have no memory of this. Well, I remember hurting my ankle because I hadn’t hurt my ankle at all. I did my best to fall down a flight of stairs at school so that I wouldn’t have to dress out at gym. Since I didn’t go shopping for nice clothes, wear make-up, go out with friends, or smoke, I’ve no idea why I would’ve kept the money.

I don’t want to think of myself as a thief, but I had lied about the ankle, so who knows what my 15-year-old self was thinking. (This letter is dated 4 days after my 15th birthday.)

But this isn’t a side of myself I like to know.

Sometimes I want to know what is wrong with my writing. Where do I fail as a writer. No 15-year-old is perfect and neither is any writer. But I’ve hesitated to ask people what I’ve done wrong. What if these flaws are permanent? What if I’m unable to fix them? What if these flaws are what will always be in the way of publication?

Then again, isn’t painful criticism part of the price of being a better writer?

12 thoughts on “Pay What You Owe

  1. Criticism is only painful to us if we make it so. Often, when we venture our own criticism of a particular work, we are speaking to our own participation or lack thereof. I was first attracted to your writing through your blog essays, nearly all of which transported me into a situation where I couldn’t help identifying with you. When I comment on your out-of-the-blog writings, the suggestions I make are nevertheless highly idiosyncratic, based on my experiences as an editor, where judgements and decisions were necessary; based on my experience as a reviewer, where similar judgements were called for; as a teacher, where my wishes to be instructive trump any thoughts of being judgmental; and as a writer, where I have come to accept that there is no single editorial truth and, indeed, that someone I may actually dislike will find something remarkable in my work that was not at all intended by me.

    Your strengths as I see them could very well be irritants to you, growing ever more irritating as I express my admiration. I find your search for honesty, your eye for detail, your unabashed love for the things you love, and the ways in which your lead characters are caught up in familial pull to be mesmerizing. I am easily transported to your world which, unlike, say, the worlds of Don DeLilo or Franz Kafka, are not fraught with near paranoia but rather a deep care for the way people feel about themselves and their yearnings to reach out.

    The more you write, listening to yourself rather than with the voices of critics in your ears, the stronger yet your voice will resonate. Ah, I can already hear you asking, To what end? To the end that you will regard your voice as a friend, a trusted friend with whom you can share secrets.

  2. I have fears like these too, and what it all boils down to, in my dark, shrinking girl self inside my head, is “what is wrong with me?” The irrational, pain based fear is that I am somehow flawed, less than any other human being.

    The reality is that is not true. The reality is that no one is perfect, and no one is “better” than you, we are all just unique and special in our own ways, and our own ways include our flaws.

    When I am trying to get over the little shrinking girl insecurities, I turn to my own faith in myself, that there is something worthy in me, that I have talents and skills. That if there is a problem, I can fix it, and if I can’t, I can survive being imperfect and making mistakes.

    But it’s all a journey. It’s all the work of being a writer and an artist I think. The writing is only part of it, the rest is the struggle with ourselves.

  3. Ah, the writer’s fears! The universal “What if I STINK?!” panic of the unpublished! OH, those fears and the doubts which linger even when we dispel them!

    I have to admit, Marta, I didn’t know how you were going to do it. I read the letter, and wondered just how you were going to bring it back around to writing. I waited in suspense. And WHAMMO! You did it.

    Criticism is only as good as the critic, isn’t it? That’s my thinking. I want feedback, but I also know to cull it when necessary. Not something I always do, but something I know to do. I bet you know this too, and the harsh criticism which shows the flaws may be valid, but only insofar as it helps you grow. Beyond that it’s only destructive, right? So don’t worry. Good criticism comes with aids to help achieve the betterment. The kind which only accentuates the things which are wrong aren’t the kind you need yet. That can wait for AFTER publication. 😉

    1. When I start writing these things, I don’t often know how I’m going to bring it around to writing. Sometimes I get a post half written, stare at it a while, and then an idea comes to me. Much of the time I don’t know if the idea really connects, but I like it anyway. Go figure.

  4. Wow – that had to be a tough letter to read!

    Rather like Darc, maybe, I often play a little game with myself here: I try to guess how and where you’ll tie the nominal subject of each post to writing. This one completely surprised me… Thought sure it was gonna be about being honest with the reader, along those lines.

    How ’bout if I try an experiment. I’ll try writing a — ONE — critique for you which is not harsh or cruel, but which presumes I know you not at all. I’ll try to role-play someone who doesn’t know what you’re capable of, and doesn’t really care how you might react, and so on.

    Does that sound like a good experiment? If it does: what do you most want a critique of? What would you LEAST want me to look at?

    (About the latter: that MAY be because you yourself sense flaws in it. So look for them on your own first, before turning it over to somebody else.)

    I do think the “painful criticism is a price I must pay” is more truism than truth. I wonder how much painful criticism Michael Chabon has had to endure, for example. Not to say that his work and his career have necessarily been easy — just that “painful criticism” may not have been a burden he ever had to face much of.

    Point being: you can’t let an absence of such criticism lead you to think you’re on the wrong track.

  5. Perhaps you wanted the money to get yourself something extra for your birthday.

    Your mother – she seems to have had a fierce love for you. And she still expressed her love for you even when she was admonishing you.

    What if the flaws are permanent? Then you work around them, just like a person born without arms learns to do things with their feet. 🙂

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