Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Word Burner Club

I was six when I wrote my first song and I’ve written over a hundred more since then. Although I like most of what I’ve written, a couple of the songs are extra special to me because they were carved from deep places of vulnerability and pain. Like A Blanket is one of those songs. Not only does it speak from my own struggle, it has also connected with thousands of people walking their own paths of pain.

A few years after I wrote the song it was recorded by a group who has appeared with Bill Gaither and is well known in Southern Gospel circles. I was honored when they said they wanted to record it and especially excited to know that the instrumentation for the song would be provided by a live orchestra in Prague!

So. The song was recorded, got some radio play, and was even turned into an accompaniment track that people can buy and sing themselves which is pretty cool.

That all happened about eight years ago. Let’s fast forward now to a couple Sundays ago when Steve was away in Pennsylvania picking up his newly repaired car. Sarah and I were hanging out at home together where I was reading the blog of a columnist/music reviewer who just happened to mention the group that had recorded my song. In the course of his remarks, he referred back to one of their earlier CD’s that he had reviewed which immediately made me curious as to whether he had ever reviewed the CD that Like A Blanket was on.

I did a little search and it turned out that he had, indeed, reviewed that project. I eagerly scrolled down to see what he had to say about “my baby” and was pretty much knocked senseless as soon as I saw his first sentence. He basically ripped the song to shreds, leaving no verbal stone unturned as he communicated its utter awfulness and its utter unworthiness to be included on any high caliber CD.

A few of his prime quotes were: 1) Instead of being a masterpiece, the song was a disaster-piece 2) The song exemplified “loopy tautology” 3) My writing trivialized the voices of the group who had recorded the song 4) The song exhibited marshy spiritual logic of genuine but undisciplined imaginations.

I’ll spare you the rest.

Now let me just say that I am all about constructive criticism. In fact, when we were doing music full time, I went to great effort and expense to hire professional songwriting coaches to listen to the songs I was working on and tell me what wasn’t working. And while those sessions weren’t always the most pleasant (in fact, they were often downright painful) I gladly took my medicine because I knew it made me a better writer.

But in this particular case, what really hurt my heart was the over-the-top snide and sarcastic tone of the review. There was never an attempt to point out any positives, it was just a slash and burn romp through words that are precious to me—words that I had rewritten countless times, words that I had agonized over, words that I had cried over and prayed over.

It was like I was saying, “This is the best I have to offer” and his response was saying, “Well, guess what? Your best stinks.”

After I finished the review I pushed aside my feelings of discouragement and said sternly to myself, “Becky, you’re a big girl. When you choose to allow your words to be ‘out there,’ you open yourself up to all sorts of opinions from all sorts of people. You’ve had your songs critiqued before so this is nothing new. Pull yourself together and get over it, girlfriend!”

And so I did.

Sort of.

For a while.

I went downstairs and ate dinner with Sarah and we spent a peaceful, pleasant evening together. I kept quiet about the review and I was so proud of myself for not shedding even one tear over that guy’s ugly words.

But the next day?

There were tears.

All of my attempts to stuff the hurt down and tell myself not to care were for naught. Because I really did care and it really did bother me that a song that was so valuable to my heart had been so thoroughly shredded by the scissors of sarcasm. In addition to the song issue, I was also dealing with an unrelated challenge and as a result of those two tough things, I ended up fighting back tears for most of the day. When Steve got home from Pennsylvania that evening, he could tell something was wrong; however, he didn’t push me when I said, “I’m fine.”

Tuesday came and I was still struggling, still trying to decide whether or not I should even tell Steve and Sarah about the whole scenario because, really, it just wasn’t that big of a deal. I just needed to grow up and move on.

Didn’t I?

But then I thought, “Well, for crying out loud. What is a family for if not to share my burdens with? Why am I insisting on carrying this alone?

And so while we were sitting around the table after dinner Tuesday night, I pulled out two copies I had made of the review. Explaining briefly where it had come from, I asked Steve and Sarah to read it.

Well, Sarah bless her tender heart, was almost immediately in tears. The more she read, the more her eyes filled up. She would read a few words, glance worriedly at me, cry a little, read some more, glance at me again, and cry some more. Steve didn’t cry but he snorted in disbelief a few times at the overall tone of the writer and cast many loving glances at me as he read.

As the three of us started discussing the review, I started crying all over again; however, it felt wonderfully therapeutic to share tears with my family instead of shedding the tears alone. After a few minutes had gone by, Sarah suddenly sat up straight in her chair and made a startling declaration. “Mom! We need to go outside right now and we need to burn these words!”

I stared at her for a moment and then I said, “You know what? That sounds like a good idea to me!”

And so the three of us grabbed a lighter and went out to the back deck. Sarah held on to her copy of the review while Steve handed his copy over to me. As we gathered around the grill, I took that lighter in my hand and with a wonderful sense of release, lit the page on fire. Then Sarah (my beloved fellow writer) took her copy and set it ablaze, too.

For a few quiet moments, the three of us watched as the hurtfulness disintegrated into ashes. Then Steve made a little quip into the ensuing silence and all three of us burst into giggles—tears to laughter in a matter of moments.

And do you know what?

That was a week ago and over these past seven days, I have barely given that review another thought. It was so wonderful to be able to share my struggle with people who loved me, people who were indignant on my behalf, people who affirmed to me that I am still a good songwriter. The act of burning the words brought a wonderful closure and provided me with a way of saying,“I am not affected by what this one guy thinks. His words don’t have power over me and his words do not define my gift.”

The bottom line? You and I will never be perpetually admired and affirmed by all the people in our lives. However, when hurtful words enter your life, just remember—you are not defined by those words.

And remember this, too. If you ever feel like writing those words down and taking ‘em out back and burning them, well, join the club. The Word Burner Club.

You’ll feel better.

I promise.

29 Had Something To Say (Just click here!):

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful way to "let go"! Just wanted to let you know that I found a great deal of comfort in "Like a Blanket" when I was diagnosed with cancer and when I had my 2nd, 3rd, and soon to be,
4th tumor resections. While I am not a non-bleliever, I am a "barely believer". If your song can touch me so deeply, think what it has done for so many others.

Jan in Toledo

Anonymous said...

That was great Becky; letting go. Sarah sure has a good head on her shoulders.

You and your family sent me a copy of "Like a Blanket" many years ago. And, while, we are of totally different faiths I continue to find comfort in the song; the words, the meaning, and the pure feeling you put into writing those words.

I am thankful you have able to put this behind you, but you also have to know that many more people have been touched and helped by your words than this one person who reviewed your work in such a hateful way. As you said constructive criticism (CC) is okay, and often appreciated; but this was not CC.

Take care!


lesley said...

I have learned that words with a slant such as these speak much more about the the person from whom they come rather than the person to whom they are directed.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bec,

Why not just give the guy's name and let your web friends at him?

Just kidding. . . but ain't it temptin'?

Love, Steve

Kim@Seasons of My Heart said...

Becky...thank you for sharing with us something so hurtful, and how you pressed through it...and are now free from it.

Bless Sarah's sweet heart for coming up with the idea of burning those words. I'm always amazed at how God uses our children to bless and encourage us.

I LOVE you..and I LOVE your words..and I LOVE your music. And I know so many others to well as God who has put those words into your heart...and that my enough! :-)

Anonymous said...

Some people feel really free to be as obnoxious as possible on the internet. It's a pervasive problem. Just keep trying not to take it personally. It happens to everyone eventually if they spend enough time in any online community and it's best just to shrug it off.

They're a minority, but a loud, vocal minority, so they can seem like a larger population than they really are.

Jenna said...

Thank you for your transparency in sharing this. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

I have had such a hard week, not only because we found out yesterday that my 58 year old uncle who was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago doesn't have long left, but also because I had a situation with my work as a writer over the weekend where awful (and completely false) words were said about me that left me reeling and very hurt. And I've been so upset about it since then.

Reading about your situation really helped me- Thank you for your openness.

Sheri Hawley said...

"Like a Blanket" has always been one of my favorites! Thanks for writing it and thanks for ignoring the "professional"! :-)

Anonymous said...

Some people are so rude - sounds like your loving family has your back. REALLY, that's all that matters.

Guerrina said...

Ackkkk...I shedding a few left over tears for you at my desk! The wisdom of the Lord surely has settled over Sarah! Thank you for sharing this....thank you for not telling the reviewer's would not be pretty!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Steve--let me have that guy's name.

I love your writing, whether in music or in word, and I love you!

love deb

kimmy said...

Love Steve's idea :)

Chris Pitonyak said...

Becky, I've always enjoyed and admired your writing. Your last name is appropriate because you are a true wordsmith.

Tobi said...

Becky, your story reminds me of a "start of summer" tradition I read about once. In a summer lake community somewhere in the midwest, there is a neighborhood where all the kids grew up as summer neighbors. Each year, at the start of summer when all the families arrived, they would have a big picnic followed by a bonfire. And at the bonfire, each child would get up and read the school assignment on which they got the worst grade of the year, and then throw it into the fire. When the last child was done, summer officially started.

Welcome to summer, Becky! Now go have a popsicle!

janet said...

Like Steve, I did some "snorting" of my own as I read your post. I couldn't believe what that critic had written. I ordered "Like a Blanket" several years ago, and find it very soothing and calming. I'm sure it really did hurt your feelings. Sarah's idea for letting it go is something I plan to use in my own life.

This was just ONE person's opinion. As I post this, I already see at least 10 comments from people who loved it, so in my view that's 10 to 1, and the majority rules.

Anonymous said...

Sarah had the very best idea that could ever be and it is good advice
for us in many other situations.
Love, Mom

Kelly Dunn said...

Hi Becky, This has nothing to do with the song you are talking of (I have never heard it)but I wanted to tell you of another song of yours that I assume you wrote! I may have told you this in a previous post when I first came across your blog, but not sure! When I was in college, I communted. One semester I had to take a speech class and I am not a public speaker at all!! I had one cd of yours in my car that I had bought at our church when you were there doing a concert! (Center Church, Grove City, PA) The song "Take it off your Worry List" was my saving grace that semester! I would listen and sing that song the whole 45 min. drive on the days I had to give a speech. Something about how God has never failed me yet.....that always gave me the courage I needed to get up and do it because I had done it before and got thru just fine!! So long story short! Your writing was a big part of my life for that semester!! Thank YOU!!! God used you in me!!

Karen C said...

I love it! What a great way to get over unconstructive, hurtful words. I remember one New Year Eve church service we did something similar ... maybe something God had forgiven us for long ago but we still held onto. I can't remember exactly, but do remember it was beautiful. Sounds like Sarah has great ideas ... and maybe Steve can incorporate into a service sometime!

Anonymous said...

Hi Becky: People that do reviews drive me crazy. It is only their opinion. I have always said that everybody is my friend until they prove that they should not be. I have friends that my other friends aren't fussy on but that is their problem. Like movie reviews, some people like a movie, and some don't. God gave us each a brain so that we can make decisions on our own, not so that someone else should tell us what to do, or what to like. As long as you love that song, that is the only opinion needed. I am going to use that Word Burner Club with my children when someone says something mean to them, I will get them to write it down so that we can burn the words together and teach them that they can let it go. (just so long as they don't become arsonists!!)


Jan said... many songs has this reviewer written while his daughter is going through treatment for neuroblastoma? How many years has he spent loving and living with Jesus and singing His praise personally and professionally...hmmmmmmmm?

Love the burning of the hurtful words. Love the Smith family. If everyone had a family like yours, the world would be a much brighter place!

Jan Reuther

Karen C said...

Becky ... what a wonderful way to get rid of unconstructive criticism and hurtful words. I love Sarah's idea! I remember a New Year's Eve church service where we burned some paper ... best I can recall we had to write something down on the piece of paper that God had forgiven us for long time ago but we could not forgive ourselves. But ... I do remember it was a beautiful service.

Kim watts said...

I've heard it, you posted a link yrs ago. I loved it. He needs to know the story behind it, he has probably never had a real problem. Ever heard mean by Taylor swift? She wrote that about a record label exec that trashed her. Look where she is now!

Ann Martin said...

I know "Like a Blanket" has been a blessing to many and will be to many more. We count it an honor to have been able to help with the CD; know God has used it tremendously. Keep on smiling, Becky, and feel the love your friends have for you.

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Oh, how I am so sorry that someone wrote such "stuff," but how thankful I am for your very, very wise daughter.

Whoever said "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me..." pffft!

Yes, words are so, so powerful, and the writer knew that. That's all I'm gonna say.

And, yes, we ARE to bear each other's burdens - and that "reviewer" sure put a burden on you but glad that it has greatly diminished!!

Sue G said...

I just returned from a short trip to Chicago (for fun, not medical!) and am attempting to catch up on my favorite blogs. Seeing this entry made me cringe and smile, feel angry and grateful.

You see, as a writer, I can relate to your reaction. For years I stopped writing because I didn't want to hear the criticism. To me, it would have been destructive, not constructive.

But, as a person who has shared suggestions to you when you were preparing copy for publication, I know firsthand that you are a writer who not only appreciates but also grows from constructive criticism. You hold true to your heart while also making changes you know improve your focus. I truly admire that about you!

So, while it bothered me to read some of the pedantic drivel this person published about your song, it also made my heart sing to know that you worked through the nasty comments to rediscover the honest and open heart (of yours) that originally put "Like a Blanket" on paper.

Never let anyone steal your joy or your gift. . . a lesson you bravely learned with the help of your family. Brava!

Robin Smith said...

I needed this so badly and yep, i quoted you on FB this morning.

MaryH said...

Well, I have not been keeping up with all the happenings here for various reasons - however, I wish I would have been here to support you on this one, for sure - Like a Blanket will always be one of the most beautiful songs written and I will always remember the beautiful voice that sang that song to my mother as she prepared to leave this world - so there, music critic, you don't have a clue!

Anonymous said...

I just keep missing your posts, and I did not see this one til now. First, it was mighty big of you to not give details on the group or the critic; there would be a host of people who would give HIM a review if we knew who it was. (Like a Blanket is my FAVORITE song of yours, without a doubt). And second, what a brilliant way to deal with hurtful words! The critic has long since forgotten what he wrote; he carries no burden from those words that he put out there so thoughtlessly. And you need not carry any burden from them, either. I will pray that he receives more grace than he gives...

Anonymous said...

Hi Becky! My name is Christie Howard- I'm Alice Howard's daughter-in-law. I first heard you at First Assembly of Mooresville (I'll never forget Steve in his overalls and "bubba" teeth!! LOL) Anyway, at that time I was a new believer and didn't have a great christian station to listen to. I slowly was given or purchased several of your CDs. Since then your (and Steve's) words have blessed me, comforted me, made me laugh and cry, but most importantly brought me closer to God!! I am sure that there are tons of others out there that you have also blessed! Just remember that the ones that LOVE your words WAY outnumber the 1 snarky critic that didn't! Just count it as a loss... HIS!!!