When I was in my MFA in Creative Writing program Aryn Kyle (The God of Animals) did a one-week residency. I went to a small workshop she put on, and I recall her telling a story about online commenters. She’d really wanted to know what nasty things people had been saying about her novel on Amazon, but didn’t know if she had the strength to do so. She avoided the comments section for some time. Then, one night, she got drunk, went to Amazon, clicked on the one star reviews, and then cried herself to sleep.
She bitched about how people discussed some of the story and factual flaws in her book, and she told us how the commenters were rude and insensitive and she wondered if they realized how many years it took her to finish the novel.
And I recall sitting across from her and thinkng, Blah, blah, blah, at least people are reading your work and discussing it. At the time I was one year into graduate school and feeling like I was this hopeless writer living in obscurity, writing every day and not finding an audience.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story. In the past few months I’ve published four essays online. Two in the Huffington Post, one in the New York Times, and one in The Good Men Project. I shared all of these posts online except The Good Men Project because within moments of it being published, commenters started telling me that we needed to go to couples counceling. I’ve never been the kind of person to get involved in the comments section, so I found it a little unnerving when I went down into the trenches at the bottom of the post, and read the crazy shit people were saying about my essay.
The essay was about sex in marriage, and I stupidly didn’t assume that readers would have strong opinions on this topic. The essay was 1,200 words and commenters felt they had enough insight into my life to tell give me harsh advice, “you know why your wife doesn’t want to f#$k you?” and tell me that if I did more around the house my wife would probably want me more. I will admit, this was an except from a much longer essay (3,000 words), and during my editing to get the thing short enough for publication, I tried really heard to focus on Mel’s contributions to the marriage. What I was trying to say was, my wife is amazing, I realize that, and I don’t know why my mind gets so cluttered when we don’t have sex for a while. Then, like a fool, I got involved. I tried to explain myself to one of the commentors and ended up sounding like a little boy trying justify his actions in ums and exscuses.
Even though many people came to my aid, including the editor who sent me a very nice email, and one amazing blogger with a Ph.D. in psychology posted a very insightful response on his own blog, and several people tagging me on twitter to say, “you are not alone,” I was a wreck for several weeks afterword.
I really began to question my ability to express myself thought the written word. I worried that maybe the commenters were right. Perhaps all this time I’ve been treating my wife like shit. Mel and I had several conversations about the comments, and I suppose on the bright side, we ended up really expressing how much we love and value each other.
Naturally I am looking at the worst-case scenario here. The comments on my other essays have not been nearly as difficult to deal with, but I must say that they have been challenging. A link to my New York Times essay ended up on The Bump, and commenters there felt justified in criticizing my mother. And my essay on Disney Princesses found its way into the topic of discussion on a Texas radio station where they missed the point entirely and said I was an over protective father.
I used to co-host a radio show called the Weekly Reader where I interviewed authors about their books. During an interview with Robert Boswell (Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards) he told me something to the tune of, Authors have to have thick skin. Over the years I’ve become an elephant. For over a decade now my dream has been to be a memoirist. If I wind up having more success than I’ve had so far, obviously I’m going to have to have to develop that thick skin.
But it is only recently that I’ve started to realize how contradictory an author with thick skin is. To be an author you must open your heart and your mind. You must show the reader something tender and sensitive near the core of who you are. You have to spend literally years developing your craft, finding channels into the secret and sensitive parts of yourself, and then figure out how to place all of it down on the page. I can think of few things in my life more intimate than writing, so it only seems natural that I (and authors in general) would be sensitive about what they produce.
And as I write this post, I am starting to realize that all of this is more about me than you. Writing about my struggle with online comments is how I hope to process it all and develop my “elephant skin” that Boswell spoke of. And when I think about that, I also think about something author and New York Times Editor KJ Dell'Antonia sent me the day before she published one of my essays.
“A word about comments: They're often surprisingly harsh, although moderated and usually civil. Remember, they're NOT ABOUT YOU. Every comment says far more about the person writing it than about the person reading it.”
Although I like to think that my essays are about me and my personal experiences, I’m starting to realize that so much of reading is about the reader. People take from my writing what they want. They interpret much of it based on their own experiences and emotions, and that is something I have no control over. Some people want to take an essay about getting up in the night with children, and make it about low wages in education, or how people shouldn’t have children unless they can afford them (see the comments section). Others want to take an essay about what the hard work of marriage looks like and make it about semantics (if your marriage is hard work than you’re doing it wrong).
I don’t know if I will ever get used to online comments. And I don’t know if I will ever have enough self-control to not read them. But as I press forward with publishing, I’m going to have to find some way of dealing with them. I need to convince myself that they are, indeed, a reflection on the commenter, and not me.
I think I’m going to close this essay with a question: if you are an author, how do you deal with online commenters? On the flip side, commenters, what are your thoughts? How do you view your online comments and the comments of others?
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley