I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to know how things are going to go. When I drive anywhere, no matter how familiar or innocuous the route might be, I always visualize myself getting to my destination and then getting home again. When I get ready for any kind of event, a class or presentation or performance, I often count down the time until it’s over. (“Two days from now, at this time, it’ll be done. Tomorrow, at this time, it’ll be done. Twelve hours from now. Five hours from now.”) I get as prepared as I can, and try to imagine myself in the setting and successfully getting through the work involved. Meanwhile, the simple fact of being able to measure “how long before it’s over” is often the most important comfort.
My “need to know” has two pieces. I need to know I’ll get through whatever it is I have to do. I’ve also always needed to know that I know how to do whatever it is. I’ve always wanted to feel that I have the answers. I can script out exactly how to handle any given situation. I can gear myself up to do whatever it is, and do it perfectly, without a single question or hitch.
Performing has been part of my life for many years, ever since I was a kid playing in my first piano recitals. These days, performance doesn’t just mean sitting at the piano in front of an audience: it means teaching, lecturing, anything that involves standing up in front of a group and giving them something. I’m used to it, and it’s become reflex to step into my performer-self any time I need to get up and deliver. My performer-self is stronger, smarter, and far more polished than the real me. The person inside that suit of armor might be cringing and scared, but the suit of armor hangs onto the smile and doesn’t make mistakes.
At least, I’ve always believed that. Lately, though, I’m starting to see exactly how much I don’t know about things.
A therapist I used to work with told me once that my approach to getting through tasks sounded exhausting. Always gearing myself up as if I were about to climb a mountain, and then dragging myself up it and back down the other side, and then having to gear myself up for the next thing, over and over, day after day. My need to know turned everything into the need to be perfect, no matter how routine or familiar a job might be.
For the past few months, I’ve had one particular teaching job that has very much challenged my ability to put on my performer-self. It’s a once-a-month creative writing workshop with kids from Baltimore City high schools, through the program Baltimore Bridges. I went into it thinking that here, especially, maybe more than in any other job I’ve had, I had to have the answers and know what to do. It was so important to do a good job working with these kids. I had to get it right.
The thing was, the job was different from anything else I’ve done. I’m used to working with kids one-on-one, as a piano teacher. I’m used to working with younger kids, not high schoolers. Music has been my teaching focus, not creative writing, as much as I love the writing craft and love to talk about it and work with other writers. And the kids in the program come from backgrounds totally different from my own, different enough that I got self-conscious, worried that I wouldn’t know how to connect with them the way a teacher needs to, especially to guide and encourage creative work.
My performer-self wasn’t much help here. Trying to be perfect and have all the answers didn’t achieve a lot. The best thing I could do as a teacher was figure out how to be a person, one person meeting other people and saying, “Hey, let’s talk about this creative thing we all like to do. I’ll tell you what I think about it, and I want to hear what you think.”
It took a while to get used to that idea. I’m still getting used to it, and still cringing over every mistake I think I make. The “be perfect” reflex is still very much alive. The process is teaching me, though, that other things matter more than the need to know. Being flexible matters. Being willing to learn matters. Being able to meet people, anyone and everyone, where they are, and as I am, as a real person rather than a suit of armor: maybe that matters more than anything else.
When you’re a real person, you can get out of the way and do the work that needs to be done. When kids write their thoughts in response to a piece of music they’ve never heard before, and one of them comes up with a startling and beautiful poem, and then is shy about sharing it because “it’s not like what everybody else did,” you can say Be yourself, and mean it. When the workshop group takes a given prompt in an unexpected direction, and they’re laughing and working together and you can feel them becoming a community of writers, you can step aside and say Go for it. When someone apologizes because they broke whatever mold of expectations they thought you had, you can tell them No, I want you to do your own thing. And you do.
When I’m focused on being perfect, the suit of armor takes over, center stage. But the work, whether it’s a workshop or a class or a performance, matters a whole lot more than me and my need to know.
I’ve always thought I needed to be more-than-myself to do anything right. But if I’m admitting I don’t have all the answers, I also have to admit that maybe it’s okay not to. Maybe it’s actually better.
The work matters, always. I want to be a better writer and a better teacher; I want to grow, all the time. To do that, I have to put away the need to know, and pick up the need to learn instead. And then hold onto it, every day.
Photos by Paul Faatz