Why I Didn’t Read the Comments on my Salon.com Article

The Internet trolls were out to get me, but I got away. Troll painting by Theodor Kittelsen via Google Image Search

The Internet trolls were out to get me, but I got away. Troll painting by Theodor Kittelsen via Google Image Search

Amazingly, if I do say so myself, I managed not to read the comments on my Salon.com article that came out over the weekend. This was purely self-preservation. The editor had warned me that people would write copious and awful things in response because the subject matter is controversial (being jealous of other women when I already have one beautiful, perfect kid? What’s wrong with me?), and I knew she was right. In fact, before consenting to have the essay published, I thought long and hard, again, about whether I wanted to put that piece of myself out in the world. And I decided I did, but that I would make every effort to resist reading the comments. And so, while I did glance obsessively at the stats (how many Facebook shares? How many Twitter shares?), I did not click on that little speaking-bubble icon as it jumped from 10 to 20 to 30 to 46. Not once. I did ask a friend to do a Readers Digest–style synopsis for me, and that was awesome. But otherwise, I did not read the comments because I felt I could predict what mean things would be said: You’re a bitch, you’re selfish, you have “first-world” problems, you’re ungrateful. There would be disdain, and more than a little anger directed at me.

I get that. I do.

I don’t claim to be perfect, but what I was going for in the essay, and what I think came through if you were looking upon the piece charitably, was an expression of feelings that I wasn’t and still am not proud of, but was and am trying to work through. I think ultimately that admitting to having shitty, petty feelings is something I can be proud of, and trying to work through them, something of which I’m prouder still. I don’t regret a thing about publishing it, but I of course do worry about what’s being said about me. Or perhaps worried is the wrong word, because, online, in this world we live in, that article isn’t really representative of me. It’s this persona that I created and that has been created about me, and it bears very little resemblance to the actual me, sitting on my couch in sweatpants, in need of a shower, my left contact lens feeling sticky, thinking about getting up and getting another cup of tea as I type.

I say that because, while I did not read the comments (have I mentioned that yet?), comments have of course reached me. Friends have written directly with all kinds of lovely and supportive words (God, I love my friends) and some strangers have tagged me on Twitter with nice things to say. Others have been not so nice, or perhaps, just more misunderstanding. A woman on this blog who has suffered terribly with infertility sounded restrained but also called my parenting into question, like maybe wanting a second child makes me somehow not present or thankful for the first (Oh my dear L, how could I ever not be grateful for you?). And one Twitter comment that at first irked me and then cracked me up referred to we women nowadays as dissatisfied with our lot because we need “the perfect Mummy Instagram life.” (If she spent ten minutes in my messy house she’d know that very little about me is mainstream, perfect, or Instagram-worthy!)

But of course, that reader isn’t in my house with me; she doesn’t really know me. Nor I her. And I don’t know the infertile woman who posted here on my blog reminding me to be present with my kid because I have it better off than she does. She doesn’t know that actually I’m a very nice person and my heart goes out to her for her losses. It does. And yes, reader, in case you are wondering, too: I am grateful for my kid and I cherish him, I promise.

I think it’s important to remember that anything ever published on the Web is going to be only a part of the picture. As writers of personal essays that get published on the Web, we put these little slices of ourselves into the world and ask them to be scrutinized. It’s kind of like showing someone a dirty fingernail and asking them to guess whether the whole body is clean; you can’t actually tell. That’s the risk of personal writing, and it may also be the strength of it. We’re all a lot more interesting, and scandalous, when we’re only revealing part of things. But add to that the conundrum of the Web–anonymity, viral insanity, and unlimited access–and you have a muddy and incomplete picture of a person that some people want to take as complete.

But I must say I think writing has always been like that. Even in fiction, read from books, from the public library, it’s so tempting to think that the author is the same as the protagonist, and if the protagonist behaves badly that the author has behaved badly, too. This has always been true, but Goodreads, Amazon, and comment threads have made that author all the more accessible (and vulnerable). Is this a good thing?

I will say that a nice thing has happened for me since I wrote and published that essay over the weekend. I’ve softened a bit. I feel sometimes, as a writer, that I get this little tool to help me through the world. When things go badly for me, I often think, but I can write about it. And writing about–and coming out about, because it’s very, very personal–my infertility has helped me shape my understanding of it. I feel both less obsessed with it and more content with what I’ve got, and also brave for having said it all in the first place.

Thank you, friends and readers, for your support.



On Teaching Writing; or, Shazam!

This post first appeared on Popcorn the Blog on July 9, 2012. Read it there. Or like us on Facebook!

Never am I more reminded that writing is instinctive than when I teach it. I don’t mean that writing well is innate, a hardwired talent, though often that’s true too. But I mean that good writing relies on feeling your way to the right choice. Since I am one of those people who believes that writing can be taught, I think this is what, ultimately, I’m teaching my students: to make the right choices at the right times. To call on what they know, what they feel, what they sense.

I call this mythical superpower “instinct,” and I reference it all the time when I teach. I often find myself telling a student she has “good instincts” about storytelling or writing a good argument or even grammar or sentence structure; and I urge students to call on their “instincts” when they’re critiquing someone else’s work. Just the other day, a student emailed me. How, she asked, can I give a good critique of a fellow student’s short story when I have no idea what I’m doing?

You do have an idea, I said. You know when something doesn’t ring true. You know when a story feels incomplete. You know when a description isn’t right. Follow your instincts, I said!

Doesn’t it sound empowering? Shazam!

Image courtesy of Vegas Bleeds Neon

But here’s the thing. When those same stories are staring at me from the online portal that, this summer anyway, is my classroom, I find that instinct helps to this degree: I know what works. I know what doesn’t. Done.

This has always been my challenge with teaching. Teaching is a little bit like standing in front of a room of two-year-olds in the sense that they always want to know why. Why does the comma go there and not there? Um, because, uh, well…because, I want to blurt out, I am terrible at math but I have excellent instincts for grammar and it just does go there, so learn it!

(Instead, I have learned to look up that comma in the grammar book ahead of time and explain why it lives where it does using technical terms they will all soon forget, but which at least give me ethos in the moment. As a teacher, you have to explain your instincts, and I’m pretty sure this has something to do with “norming” and “rubrics.” But I digress.)

This summer, my instinct is being continually tested. I’m teaching fiction writing online, and I’ve just finished reading first story drafts. Sometimes, reading a student story that fits into what I think of as Category A., I feel a great sense of relief. Category A is the story that has a clear and easily identifiable flaw. Clearly the butler, not the boyfriend, has to commit the murder!

The challenge with a Category A is getting the student to come up with this revelation—or a better one! Maybe it isn’t a murder, it’s a car theft!—on her own, using her instincts. So I ask a question like, “what would happen if the boyfriend didn’t actually commit the murder? What would happen then?” (Come on, I’m nudging. Make the best choice.)

The greater challenge is Category B: the student story that just really, really isn’t working. Your instinct tells you so. But you have no idea why. So you read it again. Maybe it’s that the vampire emerges too late in the story? Maybe that the main character is not “round” or “dynamic” but “static” and “flat?” Yes, you think. All of the above. And more. Usually the student writing this story is enthusiastic, vivid, and has a terrible penchant for gore, plus they’ve told you they’re really eager for your feedback. Try as you might to summon your instincts, they’ve gone out for tea. You stare at the page.

That’s when you haul out your toolbox. Because when instinct fails, you have to have a toolbox. In mine: phrases like “Have you asked yourself what your protagonist wants?” and “Try starting in a different place” and “I can’t identify the central tension. What do YOU think your story is about?”

I whip out a couple of those phrases and, by golly, I’ve given something resembling feedback. I’m actually, maybe, understanding what’s wrong after all. The central tension is unclear; I don’t know what the character wants. Shazam, I think. And what do you know if the next story isn’t a Category C? Category C: a story that shows talent. Good instincts, I write. Very good.

I’m sure there’s a lesson here for me, too, not the teacher me but the writer me: when instinct fails, I need to haul out my tools. The more I write, the more I realize that writing is not just about strokes of brilliance or good instincts but hard work and the willingness to try different things. This, I guess, is why I believe writing can be taught: because talent, and even good instincts, only get you so far.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have papers to grade.