I stared in horror at the red ketchup stain. It was centered on the white pants of the woman's bottom like a bulls eye. There I sat, frozen, with the incriminating ketchup packet clutched in my hands, in the middle of a crowded McDonald's. All eyes were on me.
It was unintentional. Bored, I'd been fiddling with the ketchup packet, as I waited for the rest of my family to finish their meal. The Laws of Physics was not my concern as I tried to squeeze a small hole in this tiny unopened package. Who knew it could fly across a crowded room? It nearly clipped my grandfather in the ear as he leaned over to pick up a napkin.
I was 13, and I still remember the abject humiliation of everyone staring. My mother made sure I apologized. I don't even remember the words, but I do remember the stuttering. The woman laughed, said she had kids my age and made her son stand behind her.
The woman forgave me, but to this day- I do not fiddle with ketchup packets and I bet she doesn't wear white pants.
We all have those extreme moments of humiliation. Things we wish we had not said or done. Words, that many of us would pay good money to never have uttered--or in some cases written.
I find I've had more than a few as I started writing. One of them is critiquing another person's manuscript, especially someone you do not know very well. I have been blessed with a very honest, frank, and challenging critique partner who lives a continent away. I've known her for 20 yrs and she is the only one I allow to tear apart my manuscript. She does this, because I trust her and she knows how to push me. The key word here...she knows me.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read and critique a new friend's writing. I'd just recently met her and I was quite honored that someone would let me-a nobody- read a story and then critique it! So I jumped in with two feet. I loved the story, but like a bull in a china shop, I added my comments, suggestions, and opinions.
Can you see the train wreck approaching?
Like that moment when I squirted that damned ketchup, unable to bring back the red liquid that would forevermore stain that woman's pants, I unthinkingly critiqued that manuscript. In a matter of minutes I offended a new friend, with words I could not take back.
My new friend was so very gracious about it, but let me know I had over stepped my bounds. I apologized profusely, horrified I'd done that. It was never my intention to hurt or in anyway offend someone. Still, I could not change what I had done.
I still squirm about that moment and it has affected how I critique from now on. I am much more careful about what I say, and I am learning what works for some, does not work for others. I really wish I could go back and slap my "younger" self up side the head, but I cannot. I just have to move on. It takes trust to let someone critique your manuscript and I broke that trust. I work very hard not to do that again. Worse, I know many writers who have stopped writing for a time because of a horrid critique..to think I was the cause of someone's block makes my skin crawl. (As a side note--my terrible critique did not cripple the writer...thank goodness!)
Writing wise, what kind of humilation have you encountered? Have you ever unintentionally hurt someone? What did you do to rectify it? Did it change how you do things?