No one ever said being a writer was a way to make friends. In fact, if you’re one of those people that thinks, “Man, I just have way too many friends,” might I suggest a career in writing, which will inevitably lead to people you like being mad at you, and you questioning whether people are being nice to you because they like you or because they want you to write nice things about them.
This phenomenon comes into play in all aspects of my writing, especially in arts writing. Reviewing shows can go three different ways. You can really like it and say all the great things about it, or you don’t like it, and say why you don’t like it. The third category is where you don’t know what to make of it but have to think of something to say.
The second category is when you are in danger of hurting people’s feelings. It’s a terrible conundrum, but more agreeable than the alternative, which is to lie and say something is good that isn’t. That just encourages the person or group to make more things that aren’t good, and that’s not good for anybody.
I think there are lots of artists out there in all kinds of disciplines who are experienced enough to roll with the punches and not worry too much about one bad review. But I do hit a nerve sometimes with people, and they’ll either write back in the comments or email me or say mean things about me on the internet.
And that’s fine. Just as artists need to develop a thick skin about getting reviews, I have to be prepared for any backlash that I might get for something I write. I haven’t totally mastered it yet. I fret about these responses. I feel bad for saying things that weren’t nice and then I get upset that so many people are mad at me. It’s something I’m trying to get better about. If I keep writing, I imagine in about 10 years I won’t have any feelings at all.
Interestingly, people seem to get angrier at me for my non-arts writing. Aside from this column, if I’m not writing about arts, I’m not writing opinions. I’m pretty just writing about issues or things that have happened, but when people don’t agree with my reporting, think that I’m being unfair to one side or another, think I’m wrong, or am a terrible writer, the emails start flowing in, and sometimes people even call me on the phone to yell at me if they have my number.
Recently, someone emailed me to say that I was wrong to publish a “personal attack” about him from someone who disagreed with him about an issue. It hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing the article that it was a personal attack, but looking back I can see how he took it that way. I think what happens is that certain issues do become personal for some people. Whether we’re talking about our communities, our schools, or even our local government, people invest so much of their time, but also their emotional energy, that it really does become about conflicts not just in ideas, but in personalities.
I wonder if this has become more true in recent years with the rise of social networking? People debate not just over kitchen tables, not just at city hall, but on their blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, in the comment sections of articles, and any other number of public forums. What you say is intrinsically linked to who you are. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
In any case, I didn’t respond to the email. That’s one trick I use when I don’t know what to say. And then I felt guilty about not responding. And then I kept seeing him and not knowing if I should pretend that I didn’t see him. And finally the other day when I ran into him, I just said that I was really sorry that I hadn’t responded and that I took his point. And then I smiled and he did, too. and I was very aware of my own humanness at that moment. We are all so imperfect.