Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Essays and the Right to Write

This morning, I read some essays. I’m starting on a new one of my own and always find it useful to get my mind into that rhythm. Primarily, I'm reading through the work of one author who has written about relationships with children and spouses and friends and family, common fodder for the personal essay genre and similar to many of the topics I’ve written about. They were beautifully done; they made me think, about my own life and how my own views might match or diverge from the author’s. I was glad to have read them.

But then I made the mistake of clicking through to the comments and was so immediately offended, on behalf of the author and essay writers everywhere. Of course there were all the expected comments about how she shouldn’t have done/said/thought what she did. Some of these were fairly benign. And then there were the especially mean ones. For example, the person who lives in the same huge city as the author hoped he never meets her. Nice. I had a similar comment on one of my essays once, someone instead saying she was glad she lived far away from me… Thank you, and Ditto!

I’ve written on this topic of online trolling before, two years ago, when I made a resolution to write what I want, critics be damned. I’ve published several essays since then and don’t plan to stop (I have one in the editing stage with a major publication, stay tuned!). Back then, I decided I would no longer read online comments on my work, and I'm pleased to say I've kept that promise.

I’ve learned that no matter what the ratio is, of positive to negative, I’ll only fixate on the hate-filled comments, the kind words quickly forgotten. (There were a lot of kind words on her essays, too, but you see, I’ve already forgotten them.) Reading the negative comments to her essays brought on flashbacks to my own, a kind of PTSD, which was not fun.

So, new resolution: not only will I NOT read comments to my own essays posted online, but I won’t read comments on anyone else’s work either. Are we clear? Excellent. (Note to dear readers of this blog, this does not apply to comments from you; I always read those.)

But, before I sign off, I have to say there’s another thing that’s bothering me: So many of the comments I read today dealt with what I can only call the author’s basic right to have an opinion. Some commentors didn’t like that she seemed to be doing okay economically. That she lived in the suburbs. Had children. Etcetera and so on and so on. The basic thread was…how dare you even write about any problem you might have when you are xyz and know nothing about xyz. (Note: she wasn't writing about the problems experienced by any other group or individual, only her own.)

I’m seeing more and more of this, and as a writer I find it disturbing. In personal essay, the writer is talking about herself and, hopefully, making some larger connection to the world around her. She is not appropriating someone else's identify (in fiction, however, all bets are off). But in the comments there's a piling on of grievances, each one claiming to have more right to speak because more bad things happened to him/her. And sometimes I see essay writers laying out a list of woes before they even get into the meat of the essay, as though they need to make a case so they can get permission to write…from whom? The universe? Or just some especially angry, anonymous commentators, whose writing, by the way, seems limited to online comments?

Listen, before I get all worked up on this gorgeous, snowy morning, let me just say I’m going to keep writing what I feel like writing if it’s okay with you. If it’s not okay with you, I’m still going to do it. And if commentors have a problem with an author’s demographic profile, they should look at that before they read the author’s work, and not waste time with them and we can all build our little silo and fill it with people exactly like us who write exactly what we already think and then we can write in the comments that even though the author has a point, she is still fat/ugly/has bad hair and then we can all turn off our Internets forever, the end.

I'm going sledding.


  1. Have fun sledding!

    There's nothing like reading the comments on an article/essay to make you give up all hope for the human race.


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