“The comments are a shitshow.” This from a friend on Facebook, a warning perhaps or an expression of vicarious disappointment. “I read the first one and threw my phone across the room.” This from a friend of a friend, a name I don’t recognize. They are commenting on a thread of an article I wrote, one in which I’ve been tagged.
Whenever I publish an essay on a popular website, I share the link on social media. Then I click on the little notification icon—on Twitter, on Facebook—and amidst the outpour of support, which I drink up like a warm cup of cocoa, there is almost always some mention of how dire, how diabolically offensive the on-site comments are. I tackle topics such as my marriage heaving under the weight of small children, or my failure, at 37, to have achieved financial independence—the sort of topics, in other words, that tend to elicit a more unforgiving breed of response.
I wouldn’t know how bad the responses are myself, because I don’t read them. I have a policy, put firmly in place the day my first New York Times piece went live, which boils down to one simple, non-negotiable rule: never read the comments. No matter how tempted you become in the flush of the moment, no matter how thrilled you are with the finished product. No matter how loudly curiosity scratches at the door.
I didn’t create this policy based on personal experience; I hadn’t been spooked by the ghost of comments past. In fact, that New York Times essay was one of the first I had ever published. The placement was a coup for me, a writer still wet behind the ears. I was trying to start over in my mid-thirties after years of being a stay-at-home mother.
The policy instead arose from watching others. Weeks earlier I had seen a blogging acquaintance of mine skewered in the same column. 277 comments, the majority of which revolved around what a selfish, suspect person she was. Her crime? Wanting more kids than her husband and daring to say so out loud. It was a glaring red flag for me: I could relate entirely to this woman’s plight. I had lived it myself, except while her situation remained unresolved, mine had already come to its conclusion (twins), which was the very subject of the essay due to appear.
The most troubling aspect of the comments section of my friend’s article, which I waded through with something akin to dismayed voyeurism, was how little engagement there was with the actual writing. Aside from the odd splash of sympathy or constructive criticism, a nominal effort here or there to raise a valid talking point, what lurked below the line was essentially a beast feeding on itself: A self-referential hydra of anecdote, judgment and vitriol, many of the heads of which seemed to be knee-jerk reactions to the title of the piece and, as such, painfully indifferent to the nuances of the text.
As a writer who takes her craft seriously, this horrified me. I had been honing my own essay for months, weighing each word, sifting through the silt of every sentiment to reveal the nugget of gold within. In its final form, the essay was the most perfect articulation I could muster at the time of a truth that had changed my life: I didn’t want twins, but ended up with a pair anyway. And the story was appearing in the New York Times to boot! Shame on me if I was going to let an unruly peanut gallery rain on my parade simply because it objected to my perspective.
A piece of writing is two things at once. It is content and form. It is what you say and it is how you say it. The problem with being a personal essay writer, as opposed to a novelist or a reporter, is that you are vulnerable on both of these fronts. You are laid open, soft and quivering, to critique of your skill as much as to critique of your beliefs. Attack on the first front is bearable and potentially useful: skills can be improved, lessons can be learned. Attack on the second front is less so: Beliefs are not as easily shifted as commas.
The second front, of course, is where the online haters, in their anonymous glee, are most likely to launch their grenades. For it is where the most damage can be done. This is why a personal essay writer will be judged in the comments section, as Dani Shapiro says, not for what she writes, but for who she is, even if her identity is invariably a (more or less accurate) figment of the commentator’s imagination. And if the writer “gives the voices too much credence,” observes Shapiro, “she won’t be able to write another word.”
How much credence one does or does not give depends largely on personality. Some of us can read the comments, the nasty ones, the bitter ones, and dismiss them offhand as the drivel they are. Some of us, unfortunately, cannot. For this second group, of which I am a member, once the offensive comment is seen, it can never be unseen. It lodges itself, dangerously, in the furrows of our consciousnesses, sowing unfruitful seeds of doubt.
In her piece “How To Write a Personal Essay That You Know Will Be Torn Apart in the Comments Section,” Hope Reeves concludes that when it comes to confronting the reality of publishing a personal essay on a website with a far-reaching and diverse audience, you have four choices: 1) Edit yourself painstakingly to avoid any possible offense. 2) Steel yourself and read the comments regardless. 3) Don’t read the comments. 4) Don’t write personal essays.
Option three, I acknowledge, requires an enormous amount of will power. Many writers are incapable of staying away from the response to their labors of love. They are pulled to the comments section again and again, by the lure of feedback in all of its forms. I understand this pull, but I have always had an ironclad resolve and enough self-awareness to know that I don’t stomach ad hominem attacks well—my decision to avoid the comments was somewhat inevitable.
I do not believe that my life choices or viewpoints are beyond reproach; I like to think of myself as somebody who welcomes dissension and respectful debate with open arms. My decision not to read the comments, rather, is based on the calculation that if I get myself into a situation where I am worrying about how my readers will perceive me as a human being, I will write differently. Less honestly, less powerfully. Or, as Shapiro warns, I will not write publicly at all.
To succeed as a writer, you need to be read. The paradox of personal essay writing, which has become especially acute in the digital age, is that it is a Janus: both intensely inward-looking and other-regarding. Words are the writer’s oxygen; stories are her air. But just as air needs to be inhaled to give it purpose, to make it more than empty space, so too writers need readers to breathe them in. To sustain them. Which is why we publish our truths instead of squirrelling them away into so many diaries, into so many dusty drawers.
And publishing on the Web is a different beast from publishing in print. It is far more interactive. Every online writer has to manage the unique snowball effect of Internet exposure in her own way, taking into consideration both professional and personal goals. The bigger the venue, the more readers you touch. The more readers you touch, the more reactions you expose yourself to. The more reactions you expose yourself to, the more abuse you invite into the room.
Not reading the comments doesn’t spare you this abuse altogether. The haters who want to find you will find you anyway. As will the lovers. For me, it is the lovers who break through, eight times out of ten. I get emails and private messages from people telling me that they have been moved by my words. That because of what I wrote, they now feel less ashamed or less guilty or less alone. I have been convinced from the very beginning, since the day I dared scream from the rafters I didn’t want twins, that one of these true connections is worth a hundred damning comments.
I’m the kind of writer people call “brave.” Because I don’t shy away from controversial topics. Because I write things that are hard to admit and not particularly flattering. But is the bravery in the writing or is it in the willingness to take whatever the world throws at you once the writing is in its grip? If I manage to insulate myself from the negative comments, to wrap myself up only in the responses to my work that don’t sting so much, maybe that makes me a coward.
In the end, though, I’d rather build a wall just high enough to hide behind so I can keep writing the stuff that really matters.