Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Most Frequent Piece of Writing Advice I Received Last Year--and Why I'm Ignoring It

In 2013, I took chances with my writing, threw my hat into the air a la Mary Tyler Moore and yelled into the wind with an unusual (for me) joie de vivre, “Markets be damned! I’ll write whatever I want! I’ll write whatever makes me happy!” The result? Good things, dear reader, good things, but a big change for me as well because often, what made me happy in 2013 was writing essays, in addition to my old mainstay, fiction.

Essays are of course a very different beast from short stories or novels. When your mom points out, after reading your short story, that the mother in the piece bore an uncanny resemblance to her and was also really mean, you can claim innocence (it’s fiction, mom). In an essay, when you write about your mom’s penchant for dipping her finger into the ice cream “to make sure it’s okay,” you may not get your regular phone call on Sunday.

But it goes further than potentially upsetting a few friends and family members. Essay publishing, when it’s done online, unleashes a squadron of angry people with fast-typing fingers. And they get upset over the most minor things. Now, I’m not writing essays about our foreign policy. I’m not doing serious journalism here. I’m publishing personal essays, that genre by which a writer has an experience that gets stuck in her craw and decides the only way to get it out is to write about it. The writing itself is highly cathartic for me. Finding an audience for the resulting work, and possibly even getting a little cash money, is a wonderful bonus.

At the beginning of last year, I published an essay lamenting my difficulty finding the time, or desire, to read “serious” fiction since becoming a parent. I was thrilled the piece appeared in a major, online magazine devoted to literary news. Within minutes of the essay going live, I had my first commenter! She began with this: “Mothers are a really dreary boring group of people to talk to…” It got worse from there, until others replied, and soon the commenters were duking it out.
Might I remind you that I write in a closet? Well, I shrunk back into it, closed the door, and closed the site for the rest of the day. But I looked again, of course. By week’s end, there were many very positive comments, way outnumbering the negatives, yet the negatives stuck with me. It was the negative comments that made me pause before accepting an offer to publish an essay regarding the choices we make as parents, which would run both online and in print, in a national church magazine. But, I thought, it’s a church magazine! Surely, no one’s going to be vindictive. Oh reader, never underestimate the meanies in a church, any church.

Friends advised: “You can’t let it get to you.” They suggested I get “a thicker skin.”  (Note: If anyone out there wants to develop a skin-thickening agent, you’ll make millions, from writers alone.) So I tried, for awhile, to develop a Stuart Smalley outlook, to stare into my mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I tried to avoid reading comments altogether, but couldn’t resist. I tried to focus only on the positives and remind myself people will always disagree. I can’t change that. But do you know the other thing I realized I can’t change? The thickness of my skin. And as a new year starts, I’ve also realized, I don’t want to.

My skin is thin, so thin you can clearly see the veins, which are pumping blood to that vital organ that I wear, yes, on my sleeve. I’m always going to be the one who stops in her tracks when the moon is just too beautiful for words, and then I’ll try and find those words. I’m always going to cry at sad movies, songs, pictures. I’ll even cry at happy ones, sometimes harder. And, this too, I’m going to get madder than some people. I’m going to be more competitive. I’m going to feel anger like a vice grip squeezing on my chest. I’m going to explode with pride over my kids. I’m going to stand slack-jawed with wonder at the feats of people and things I admire, down to the feats of the crocuses in my yard reliably sending up their shoots each spring.

I’m going to feel. I’m going to feel deeply. You can call me thin-skinned; you can call me sensitive. Both terms have taken on negative connotations. So, instead call me passionate, with every definition that word holds, with every positive and negative. This is what makes me a writer. If I eliminated this trait, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love. Because it’s passion that brings me to the page each day. It’s having something to say that I can’t express any other way. If that were gone, my writing would be gone, and with that, I believe, my sanity. So, go ahead commenters, say what you will, and I’ll try and remember I’m not really here on the page to make friends, but to say what I have to. This year I pledge to get more comfortable in my thin skin.