Thickening Your Skin

March 9, 2015 § 11 Comments

rhino1As creative nonfiction writers—as any kind of writer–not every day is a gem. Some days, it’s laurels:

What you’ve written here has just moved a complete stranger to tears… 

Or my personal favorite:

[Your story] was like getting bitch-slapped by Ray Bradbury in the heart.

And some days it’s a little less-encouraging:

[After reading your piece] I felt a little sick to my stomach.

Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Recently, an acquaintance approached me about publishing a personal piece. I knew the piece was not going to get a totally positive reaction, to put it mildly. I thought it was worth publishing anyway–I think there’s value in well-written work I disagree with, or that presents a point of view I wouldn’t think of. I believe that the potential for discussion is greater when we don’t all agree.

Maybe I should have warned her. Maybe I should have said hey, people are going to react very strongly to this, you may want to avoid reading the comments. Or even think twice about publishing.

But I didn’t.

Another friend’s essay deals with estrangement from a child, the rift rooted in the child’s experience of my friend’s practice of physical discipline. When the writer asked for feedback, I said, “You may want to include something that shows physical discipline was part of your childhood, it was culturally-appropriate, it’s the way you knew.” The revised piece is still written from the perspective that the parenting style didn’t cause the problem. It’s a compelling and deeply sad piece, and if it’s ever published, there will be hate mail.

I believe that part of creative nonfiction–good creative nonfiction–is in letting oneself be the villain instead of the hero. In exposing the parts of ourselves we aren’t proud of. And yes, sometimes being rudely awakened to the fact that our views aren’t as widely-shared as we expected, whether that’s through a reasoned critical analysis or an epithet in the comments.

Haters rarely hurt me anymore. For several years, I kept an anonymous blog in which I wrote about sex and relationships. The first time a commenter called me a selfish slut it really hurt my feelings. I was the one made a little nauseous. But by the 20th time? The 50th time? my reaction started to be more along the lines of, “That’s the best you’ve got?” And the more negative comments I got, the more I was able to say, Hmmm…the ones that sting the most use the word “selfish.” Maybe there’s something in that. Maybe there’s an essay about how my dad used to say “You’re not sorry” when I’d screwed up my courage to apologize. Or how of course a ten-year-old is selfish.

When I write personal essays, I sometimes leave out mitigating information to make myself look worse, make the situation more extreme. I think it’s worth a few stones thrown to stir debate, to rile up the readers, to make them say “That’s wrong. This is what I believe and here is why.” I want to provoke discussion, clicks, links, and best of all, other essays in response. It’s a fine balance, to thicken my own skin while remaining open to valid critique. Angry comments aren’t going to teach me anything…but my reaction to them might.

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