Alternative Title: “How to Be an Artist Without Being a Douche.”
by T. Ray Verteramo
I’m a lot of things. No point really listing them all here, as anyone who’s crossed my path, read my words, or heard my voice at least once could probably figure out most of ‘em. I’m not that mysterious.
Some things I’m trying to get over, some things I just seem to be, some things I’ve just become, but other things, I’ve always been. One of those ‘always been’ things is a writer. I cannot remember a single time in my life when I wasn’t telling a story of one kind or another or just enjoying the use of words.
I love the arts, the written word, the sound of language. And I love expression, I love a story, I love human interaction, and intrigue and mystery and theater . The difference between a writer and an actor is Nothing.
After being re-acquainted with the Metal music industry when I had an essay published on CNN about life in the 80’s, I was asked to take up the keyboard for reviewing bands for one of the largest heavy metal communities on Facebook and other sites. I was a fan of their page for some time, anyway, so when I was approached I couldn’t resist. Reviewing was one of my favorite tasks as a rock journalist back when I was taken underwing by the former managing editor of Hit Parader magazine.
Of course, unfortunately, not everyone’s going to earn a perfect score. Like any responsible journalist/critic, I try to be fair because that is someone’s art — that’s someone’s soul and hard work (usually) that they are trusting you to judge in order to connect with and guide their audience, which is a task I never take lightly. But, there was one contestant that I was pretty close to passing up because what I heard did not live up to what the artist promised and I knew it wouldn’t be an easy assignment. I asked for a second opinion from a very trusting friend whom I respect to the death and he assured me that the project was at least worth the approach.
This artist self-advertised that his work was so effective and masterful that “you’d never be the same again.” I figured, Well, if he can talk the talk, he better walk the walk. With that kind of hype, he needs to live up to it.
I tried and tried to hear what he was trying to convey or feel what he was feeling, but objectivity and integrity trumps hope. The good news is that a not-so-great review can be just as effective and sometimes more so, than a positive review. However, when someone calls their work essentially “life-altering,” I had a feeling I was dealing with a fragile ego.
And of course, I was right. I knew exactly what to expect because I’ve seen this before…on the other end.
See, as I said, I’ve always been a writer, so whenever there was an English assignment, it was cake. From the time I was in first grade, it was so second-nature that I could just slap something together at the last minute on the bus, hand it in, and be praised for it. It was kind of ridiculous, really.
No matter what I wrote or how I wrote it, everyone sang its praises, putting me on the English pedestal. I always had the highest grades, published in the school papers (usually the front page, of course), chosen for the competitions, pretty much my pick wherever I wish to be the shining star of the literary academic world.
Because of the lack of critique, I grew up thinking I was the Goddess of Written Word. No one told me otherwise. There were even times when I had handed in my work late, but the teacher gave me full marks anyway because he / she just “loved what I wrote SO much.” And I was like, “Why thank you. But, of course.” All hail the great and magnificent me! Thank you! Thank you, until my senior year of high school.
Mr. Robert Lee. I will never forget that man. Never.
We were assigned to write a short story. And 16-year old Ray was like, “Oh please! Just give the A already, okay? Don’t make me waste my time!” because I, of course, was the Goddess of the Written Word. Such trivialities, though enjoyable, were essentially beneath me at that time. I knew everything there was to know.
But, then the Muse came upon me and in an instant, I thought of an incredibly brilliant plot with amazing characters. I stunned myself! It was so deep, so powerful, so amazing, it gave even me – ME, The Goddess of the Written Word! – chills. You ready for this? You ready?
A love story between a snake and a black widow spider. That’s right! I came up with that…and I’m so glad no one can see my eyeballs stroking the top of my skull.
Yeah, that was the big, powerful, and deeply symbolic masterpiece that was going to launch me into a worldwide literary career overnight *headdesk* where I would become a household name and everyone just worships my genius *looks around for a hole to crawl into and die* because I have peeled the final layers of the creative onion and will blaze the trail of the future and blah blah…blah.
So, I go back to my room to write this piece of shit.
And I loved it! I nailed it! I thought I had really achieved the unachievable and reached the unreachable star. Fifteen pages of masterpiece between two plastic report covers right there, buddy and I couldn’t wait to turn it in to hear my name called out with the usual adoration in front of the class. I couldn’t wait to hear the expected announcement, “And of course, we have another brilliant piece of work by our Ray…” and be made the example once again.
I went to class jubilantly, practically on my tiptoes, nose high in the air with a that, “Yeah, baby. I got your short story right here!” as I placed that magnificent piece of my soul into the assignment bin on his desk. Mr. Lee smiled at me, nodded, then commenced with class. I couldn’t wait to see that A…
“C-.” That’s what I got. “C” fucking “minus.” Add insult to injury, there was more red ink on my work than in the Bible.
He may as well have just used a razor blade. He slashed out this word, crossed that phrase, commented on this part, remarked on that part, just tore the thing apart.
I was aghast. Shocked. Appalled by the audacity of this guy. I figured it must have been jealousy because that would be the only reason why he or anyone would’ve ripped my paper up this way. It was the only logical explanation.
Seeing that grade got my blood pressure up so high I thought I was gonna bleed through the ears. It was on and the patient smirk on Mr. Lee’s face told me clearly that he was expecting it.
When the bell rang and everyone left, I prowled toward him, teeth clenched, eyebrow raised, ready to slash his feelings into the middle of next week while he just stood there like a Buddha. He heard every single insult, bashing, accusation, and “what for” I had to dish until I was out of breath and couldn’t think of any more.
When I was finally out of breath, he stopped, cocked his head and softly asked, “Are you finished?”
Defiantly, I folded my arms and said, “Yes.”
His eyes twinkled beneath his 70’s wire-frame glasses and very simply said, “Ray?I hate to break it to you, but you’re not the only brilliant person in the world.”
I don’t think I can describe exactly what I experienced in that moment. It was a sense of freedom, a “eureka” that comes from a true revelation in a dialogue or a spiritual encounter, a genuine discovery. There was an actual physical sensation like something breaking open or becomes lighter in my body. I felt awake.
He gave me a wonderful compliment and yet at the same time, reminded me that I wasn’t alone.In just one moment, that one sentence broke down the plastic pedestal and gave me wings.
With that, all I could respond was, “Oh.” Then, we calmly engaged in discussing the work, his remarks, and processed how I could’ve written my paper better. Once I allowed myself to let go and listen to what he had to say, I was able to absorb a new perspective and found myself enriched.
I was no longer at the pinnacle where I thought I had reached my fullest potential, but at the midst of an enormous staircase where I can keep climbing endlessly. After all, who wants to be divine if you feel like you’re the only one in Olympus? And when I turned in my revision, it was much more worthy of the “A” than the original, even if it was a stupid idea.
Well, now in the present day, after listening to this “Atmospheric” Black Metal artist, I had a feeling that history was going to repeat itself.
Sure enough, after reading the jilted words of this young musical artist who proclaimed that he didn’t care what I thought or had to say about his art — though his actions very clearly indicated otherwise — plucked at my heartstrings and I saw myself again as that leather-clad, Mohawked teenager confronting the man who in one instant changed from “oppressor” to “gift-bearer.”
Against professional etiquette, I was compelled to write back to him. I gave him some tough love regarding the nature of the business, some words of encouragement, and I made sure I passed the blessing given to me over 30 years ago.
I haven’t heard back from him. I hope that’s a good thing.