“You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t. You take the action, and the insight follows: You don’t think your way into becoming yourself.”
— Anne Lamott (source: “Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be”)
Earlier this year, I published an essay on Salon about a not-so-wonderful time in my life when I sought comfort through the affections of strangers. It was meant to be somewhat funny (uh, hello Bigfoot references) and—of course—sad, as it recounts a few years when I was pretty down. Salon readers thought differently and a number of commentators took issue with the essay’s content and more personally, me. The angrier ones wished me a life of loneliness and called me names that I would prefer not to repeat here, while others attacked my writing and how I was raised. Given that I am sensitive by nature, and that this was my first time publishing something on such a national platform, the emotional highs and lows of this bittersweet experience have taken me a while to process.
Initially on the Tuesday evening in June when I first saw my byline I was very excited. There was my name on—of all places—the front page of Salon! But while I re-read the paragraphs I’d signed off on three days prior, along with readers’ responses, my excitement faded away and was replaced with shame. People didn’t love the story, or me, as I thought they would. As the night wore on and more vicious comments rolled in, my anxiety grew. Soon, I was angry at myself for not publishing the piece under a different name. Given the topic, why had I thought I’d escape such scathing judgment?
At my desk the following day I compulsively refreshed the article, watching as more accusations about my character piled up. In total, more than eighty people decided they hate me. As someone who has spent the better part of her life trying to stay out of the spotlight and hoping people like me, this was the worst thing that could have happened. I felt like I was standing in front of my 7th grade classmates, naked, while one-by-one every person pointed out my various faults.
I began sending the article to friends, asking them for their opinion. Was I as bad as people said? Countless replies started with “I love it” and ended with “Internet people are crazy. When is the last time you actually commented on a story?” Never, I thought, but their words buoyed me for only so long.
For more input I sought out other writer-friends who tried to comfort me with their own stories of threats and ridicule. But at that time their tales seemed localized and I felt as if I were being slaughtered on the national stage. So I tallied the essay’s Facebook “likes.” When that number stalled somewhere in the low nineties I started comparing my own words with those in other featured “Life” stories. Which pieces were received positively or negatively, and if the latter, how did those bad comments stack up against mine?
Until, like everything on the Internet, I went from “most read” to further down the page to the obscure archive, which is where my essay still lives, tucked away among five months of other “Love & Sex” posts.
Half a year later, I look back at those post-publication days the same way I look back at high school. If only I could go back with what I know now…
Because what I know now is this: The fact that I published the first personal essay I’d ever submitted on a website as popular as Salon is pretty damn cool. What’s even cooler is that what I wrote elicited a response from so many readers. They may not have been the comments I’d anticipated, but isn’t getting a reaction the point of writing anyway? Looking back I wish that the only reaction I’d cared about was mine—and that I’d not let a bunch of anonymous people take away from my accomplishment.
I no longer doubt that putting my real name on the piece was the right thing to do because as a writer I am supposed to put myself out there. So I did and although the result was far from what I’d expected that excruciating discomfort was worth it.
I can only hope I’ll get the opportunity to be so uncomfortable again.