I am not especially tough. I think most people who know me would be able to confirm this. My skin is gold-leaf thin, and this is especially true after I’ve written. You will find me at my most vulnerable on the day that something I’ve penned has been published. It doesn’t matter where; this is true whether I’m in control of the posting and it’s seen by a few hundred people, or if an editor at a national publication is involved and the post is seen by several thousands.
I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, when writing was far more romantic to me than it is now and when writers had a few insular hours or days or even months before reviews of their work began to trickle in. A letter to the editor or an op-ed or a missive to the author would travel through a postal cycle or onto the desks of various news staffers before it reached the eyes (and the ego) of the writer herself. Those were pleasant times — or they seemed to be, anyway. Some would argue that the time between publication and response, pre-internet, felt tortuously interminable. I think I would’ve appreciated the breathing room. Immediacy has obliterated the insulation of the writer’s ego, and I’m still mourning that loss. But the more frequently my work sees the light of day, the closer I get to accepting things as they are.
For the second time this year, Alyssa Rosenberg has generously shared her space at her Washington Post blog, Act Four, with me. This go-round, she did so while she traveled to Toronto for the city’s International Film Festival (TIFF). (Be sure to check out her coverage, now that she’s returned!) I wrote six posts in total: Thursday and Friday of last week, Monday through Wednesday of this one. Writing daily for a Washington Post blog was as exhilarating now as it was back in May.
But if I told you that I approached each day with confidence, if I claimed that I didn’t feel anxiety at dusk every day worrying over what to write and how to frame it and how it would be received and how frighteningly possible it was that I was on the absolute wrong side of an issue, I’d be telling you the boldest-face lie there is. I’d be talking about someone other than my quietly neurotic self.
For writers like me, who struggle with the cultural disintegration of a feedback buffer, there are side effects to writing at a breakneck pace for a broad audience. The first among them is, of course, the comments section paranoia. I learned a few years ago to fastidiously avoid those unless I’m asked not to and then, only to spend as much time on them as I comfortably can without crying. The second is staggering self-doubt, which — I assure you — will annoy everyone within a mile radius when you’re on daily assignment. The third is an inability to sleep. The fourth is an uncanny aptitude for focusing on the three critical statements, rather than the 30 favorable ones. This last also manifests as talking myself out of great comments by convincing myself that 2/3 of that feedback is from people I know, people who love me, people who know just how little it takes for me to wither or chafe.
If you regularly experience any of these effects, I’ll let you in on a little life-hack. At 1 am, when you’ve reached delirium and you’re still pounding keys on what seems to be incoherent, remember: there is no time. The only minutes you have to spare are for sentences, not self-questioning. And when you wake up again at 5:30 am to re-read what you wrote at 1, you’ll realize you’ve developed an immunity to iocane powder. (Word to the Dread Pirate Westley.) Honor the absence of idle time and all that clutter casts itself aside. Head down, keep typing. That sound of your fingers flying across the keyboard amplifies, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Eventually, you surrender to it.
Is that enough? Will you be cured? Are your insecurities behind you? Man, nah. Your insecurities will always be nipping. Sometimes, they will clamp down and rip themselves a good chunk of flesh. I have yet to learn how to play off that limp, to walk a straight line when I’m wounded. This is what terrifies me: the more I’m read, the more often I’m wounded — and if I want this life, this daily-published life, I better learn quick how to self-suture.
There is nothing as exhilarating for me as writing. A close second is being widely read and well-received. I am trying to reconcile that some people will always think my purple prose sucks and that others still will almost always disagree with my central claims. Not everyone thinks that I’m good at this. I am working hard to become that most feared kind of woman: the one who does not require validation. But this, I suspect, will take as many years as I have left — and I do not know, having tasted validation, if it is a thing I could ever learn to eschew.
Here is another thing I’ve learned: publication is petrifying for the conflict-averse, but to write is to kick up dust and to beg for a brawl. To write is to wait for the big kid after school, with eggers-on encircling. You will want someone to root for you. You will want someone’s help with the wounds.
During this guest-blogging run, I think I gave as good as I got. I took more risks, made more leaps, tried to make interesting intellectual connections. I tried, as is the wont of Rebecca Traister, by way of Amy Poehler, not to f—ing care if you liked it. I’m enclosing all the links, in case you want to read them to see for yourself if you’d declare me this round’s winner or consider the whole thing a draw:
11 responses to “Writing is a Brawl: Thoughts on Another Week at WaPo.”
Thank you for putting yourself out there and risking the negative feedback. It will always be there, because there are some people who only know how to snipe at others. It’s all they do. There are others who will honestly disagree with your position, but you can usually tell the difference. The most important lesson to learn is to discern those who just want to tear you down, and ignore them (so easy to say…). I only had a chance to read your piece on Ray Rice, and I was glad to have read it. You have a gift, even if not everyone is capable of appreciating it. And when all else fails, remember that He loves and accepts you (and your writing) just as you are. That is the only validation any of us ever really need. Keep it up. You make a difference for someone every time you put something out there.
This is so kind, and it was so, so needed. Thank you sincerely, John. 🙂
I read and admired all your Washington Posts…shared several of them (Ray Rice piece..amazing!). I think the piece on black women needs to be an ongoing conversation. As someone who loves fashion magazines, I sometimes cringe at the lack of diverse models and actresses. It gets better for a time, then we go for many months without a diverse face gracing a cover. On a side note, but related, Pinterest has so little diversity it is appalling. When was the last time anyone saw a black model pinned on Pinterest or an image with a black person? Happens almost never as far as I can tell. I went looking for black beauty shots on Pinterest and came up almost empty-handed. A friend looked for black hair styles and had the same experience. Pinterest reflects a sub-section of our culture…
Thank you for reading! And thank you for your feedback about representation/diversity. It’s true that a lot of fashion/beauty markets actively exclude black women. It’s far more intentional than some people are willing to acknowledge — and until that changes, we’ll continue to deal with these erasures.
You paint vivid pictures with your words and I’ve loved every piece I’ve read. Your courage and vulnerability are inspiring. Keep being you.
Being sensitive can be a gift as well. And it’s sure better than being too hard and go through life unaffected by other people. Hugs
Hugs to you, too, Jenny. Thank you for your comment. Sensitivity can indeed be a great gift. 🙂
This is one of the best writing I’ve ever read on what it takes to be a writer. The myriad emotions that exist in a writer’s brain and heart both during and after the process are detailed in lovely language. I’m glad I started following your blog.
I’m glad you’ve followed, too! Thank you for being here. I’m so glad you found these thoughts on writing and its emotional toll resonant. 🙂
I can remember my reaction when I first read your writing. I can’t remember what I read, but I remember the sharp intake of breath and my eyes starting to water. I can remember the self-congratulatory glow of “Look what I found!” as I shared your piece on my Facebook wall so smugly.
I don’t know you. So add my voice to the those who recognize and are willing to acknowledge your brilliance. If my comments are not enough, let me know so I can round up my mother and her crew who are responsible for publishing’s late and limited appreciation of “the black reading market.”
Pull together what forces are required to beat back the fear because I love reading your work…not to mention the whole of American society that needs to hear you.
Wow, Lisa. Thank you so, so much for commenting. Thanks for sharing my work with your mother and others and thank you for the humbling compliments. It means a lot and it’s more than enough to beat back my fear today.