Max came to class today. Uninvited. Unwanted. I always think he looks like he is caked in dirt from four-wheeling in the desert. He sank into a chair in the back and crossed his long, lanky legs. Right at home, he hunkered down in the back of the room where my students, an energetic mix of adult writers, didn’t immediately notice him.
Today Heather reads, and it is a riveting story. With M. C. Escher precision, she paints—but with words. Words of a long-lost memory. Words of a man who lied to her online and betrayed her. There are tears in many eyes when she finishes. We talk of how she has artfully painted a painful memory that needed a canvas.
Then Toni agrees to read a piece that she admits was hard to write. This almond-skinned beauty could read in Swahili and the class would listen. Her voice sounds like a soft jazz song as she honors a love that is being born in her life. I am contemplating that one reading has focused on a life shattered by the lie of love, and in another, a life is unfolding with the beauty of love. Then suddenly as Toni’s voice reaches a crescendo, there is a sudden gasp that escapes her lips. She pauses, and I see her eyes flicker toward the back of the room.
I pivot only slightly for I don’t want it to be obvious that I know she sees him. Max. He has just hoisted his long legs and Frye boots with chunks of mud falling from them onto one of our writing tables with a thud. It takes a moment, but Toni regains her composure and finishes her reading.
After we acknowledge the beauty in Toni’s words, Joseph, the poet, looks around the room. Indignantly he asks all of us the same questions. “Why does he stalk all of us? How does self-doubt seize our insides and make every one of us question not just our writing but just about everything we do?” He turns to me. “You call him Max, right?” I nod. “Why is this inner critic always sneaking into the back of the room or into the crevices of our minds?”
For the remaining moments of our class we talk about how we arm wrestle with our inner critics, our self-doubts, day and night. We talk about how we write, meditate, walk, paint, practice yoga, and eat chocolate to rid ourselves of the whining doubts in our heads. In the end I explain that it may take pages in my journal to erase Max from my mind, but I am willing to write those pages. When necessary, I use an imaginary eraser to blot out Max. Once, I admit, I resorted to writing the name “Max” on the bottom of my Nikes and stomping on them. Amid the laughter, I look to the back of the room and see that Max has fled. I want to believe he is never coming back, but I know he will try.