My first “published” story was written during the second grade. The story was titled The Brick Monster, and my teacher thought it worthy of submission to the state young authors competition. Weeks later, I found myself in a stark room – a classroom for grown ups, I suppose it was – with a dozen or so fellow young authors. We were asked to explain our stories and to read them aloud.
Nervous experiences have been plenty in my lifetime, but this one stands out among them. It’s right up there with a fifth grade band recital where I performed a solo of Puff the Magic Dragon on the sousaphone; nervous was I that my teeth chattered within my instrument’s massive mouthpiece.
My teeth did not chatter while I read The Brick Monster aloud, but I recall vividly the warble in my voice as I spoke. You know the warble – that tell-tale sign of nervousness which only gets worse should you attempt to stop it. It wasn’t reading in front of others that unnerved me. It was my story. For the first time, it occurred to me that my story – one I’d written in response to a school assignment, but somehow made fun – was being judged.
There, in that unadorned little classroom for grown-ups, I heard for the first time, the Voice. If you are a writer – or even if you’re not a writer, but a person who’s endeavored at one time or another to create, to operate in a realm not coded in black and white, a realm of subjectivity – then it’s likely you understand the nature of this Voice. It often introduces itself with four words – You don’t belong here!
When you are seven, it’s difficult to understand that sometimes voices heard within may originate from without. The most natural assumption is that the Voice is you, and because we don’t tend to lie to ourselves at such a young age, we are inclined to believe the Voice when it groans those four words, when they tumble across the brain like jagged stones.
And those stones are invariably followed by many more:
You are foolish.
You are wasting your time.
Your story (or song, or picture, or invention, or design, or charitable act) is not good enough.
You aren’t good enough.
I recall thinking in those moments, as my brain passively witnessed the frightened voice broadcast from my own mouth, hearing and not hearing it – the way you do and don’t hear the ubiquitous, Kenny G melodies wafting in the air as the dentist cleans your teeth.
Criticism took over. Criticism inside of me, to me.
A giant monster made of bricks? Luke, what were you thinking? Monsters are slimy or scaly or matted with fur; they are not made of bricks. Everyone here is thinking the same thing right now. Monster of bricks? Man, that’s stupid.
And how does the hero defeat this stupidest of all stupid monsters? Oh yes – he locates a “black pit” on the monster’s brick body, touches it, and becomes a giant himself. Where did that stupid idea come from? You should skip that part when you get to it. You should skip it, unless you don’t mind everybody thinking you’re stupid. Just like this story. Stupid. Stupid story from a stupid kid.
This Voice, this internal Critic, is still around, of course. He’s commented on many of my stories since the day in the second grade, his critiques becoming more sophisticated each year. He’s here with me now, examining each word as it appears on the screen.
I have something to say to him now, in response to his critique of The Brick Monster:
I disagree with you, Critic. A monster of brick? Brilliant. Original. (Have you EVER, Critic, liked a piece of work that didn’t look a lot like everyone else’s?) Is it possible in your world for something to be different without it being “stupid”? Have you considered the deeper implications of the writer’s use of brick in describing the monster’s appearance? Mr. Critic, it’s called a metaphor!
What do we associate with brick? Large buildings. Industry. Brick is cold, unyielding, like a machine.The protagonist in this story is not just battling a mythical beast. He is fighting against society’s unstoppable spiral into modernity, against a future he deems fraught with indifference and hatred.
I wonder if my seven-year-old self tapped into something profound when he crafted “The Brick Monster”. Perhaps it was not profound, but at least it was beautiful.
It’s the beauty of Story I discovered, a waxing and waning beauty, flourishing in creation’s light, then wilting beneath the flaming breath of the Critic – an illusive beauty, more often searched for than found. Today, I’m striking back on behalf of Story. I’m reaching into the black pit within the Critic’s brick hide and becoming giant. I’m going to teach the Critic a lesson he won’t soon forget.