I think the thing I liked most about being a freelance writer was telling someone else’s story. I would listen to a business owner, entrepreneur or local celebrity as they shared with me their own story. They answered my questions – even the ones that I could tell they really didn’t want to. And then they had to trust that I would be fair with the words that finally appeared on the page. And I was.
But like most writers, I eventually wanted to tell my own story. After I’d been writing a few years, I pitched a humor column about dieting and exercise to the lifestyle editor the local afternoon newspaper. From that meeting forward, I turned in a new column every other week, and when the Albuquerque Tribune finally closed its doors, my column was one of the features that appeared to the end. It was a new experience telling my own story, learning how much of my own life was fair game to the public and how much was off limits. And while the words came easily, there was a downside as well. Because my photo appeared in the paper, regular readers recognized me when I was out shopping. People sometimes recognized my name when I was called at the doctor’s office. It was an odd and almost uncomfortable realization that I wasn’t just sharing a piece of myself through my words, I was trading some of my own privacy as well.
Most of my interactions with readers and fans were very pleasant, even inspiring. It felt great to receive an email (my column was back in the day before blogs and instant comments and pins and shares and tweets). Sometimes a reader connected with my words and felt inspired to exercise or diet because of what I’d written. I read heart-breaking stories from readers who had faced cruelty or painful experiences. I even had my column featured on the website of then national talk show host Dr. Laura, on the now defunct MSN Spaces, and a couple of contestants from The Biggest Loser sent me comments in the early days of my first blog – long before I knew enough to be excited about it.
And then there were the emails that hurt to the bone. The ones that called me ugly names, who mocked my efforts or were filled with scathing, angry comments that were often laced with more obscenities than a locker room full of mid schoolers. At first, the nasty grams made me question myself, question whether it was worth it to put myself out there for a few hundred dollars a column. These people didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me. And yet they had no problem unloading a lifetime of anger and resentment on me because of something I wrote.
I was reminded of all this recently as I witnessed the same thing happening to a friend of mine, only on the new grand scale made possible by the wonderful viral nature of the web. I first met Kara Gebhart Uhl when she was an editor at Writer’s Digest. I not only wrote for her, but we often conversed on a popular writer’s forum. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook, and I’ve watched this young woman face obstacles life has thrown her way with a beautiful spirit and grace that has obviously come at great cost. For several years, she’s blogged about her little growing family, making the mundane moments of home life seem magical. I was so excited for her when a recent entry was picked up by Huffington Post and garnered wide attention. And when a second entry was published earlier this week, I don’t think any of us who knew Kara were prepared for the onslaught of nastiness that followed. Hateful, angry, ugly vitriol filled page after page of comments. At one point, I literally watched as comment after comment appeared in real time.
I’d had a little taste of what Kara was facing, and so I told her what I’d learned from my own days as a columnist. I’m sharing it again here, because I think it is important to remember for any of us who put ourselves out there, sharing a piece of our own lives in the hope of connecting with others through our words. One of the best litmus tests of good writing is whether it makes the reader think beyond the words on the page. By being honest and vulnerable in what we choose to share, we can be far more effective as writers, sparking a conversation. And we all know that any conversation worth its salt will have two sides – both of which will likely be defended passionately. So as writers, we mustn’t let the unkind posts discourage or wound – we’ve made readers articulate their own values – right or wrong – and that’s a good thing.