Don't Read the Comments
“Our editorial staff has reviewed your article and approved it for publication!”
I was ecstatic to receive the congratulatory email from an editor of one of my favorite blogs. The site, written primarily for teachers, has more than one million followers, so my work would be extremely visible. I was thrilled to have that kind of exposure for the first time.
I told a few close friends about my article, then I shared it on my Facebook page. Later that night, I looked online and saw that it had a few hundred likes, 90 shares, and 15 comments. I read the first comment and the words sucker punched me through the screen.
“This article is absolutely worthless,” one woman wrote. “Who wrote this?! I doubt they are a public education teacher!”
I felt like an actor on Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segment, minus the celebrity status and bank account, of course. Actually, I felt worthless. How could I not? I wrote the piece described as such.
I know now that reading the comments was my first mistake. “Never read your own reviews,” my friend Patty told me on our ride home from a writing conference earlier this month. “No matter how good your work is, there will always be someone with something negative to say.”
I heard her. I really did. I guess I have always been one to learn a lesson the hard way, though. And because of the nature of the piece, an article about teachers coping during tough times, I wasn’t anticipating negativity. That was my second mistake. From now on, I will always expect online criticism, and not the constructive variety.
In the first few hours after reading the harsh comments, I found it incredibly difficult to not respond to them. I wanted to write, “Yes! I am a public school teacher! Didn’t you read my profile?” and “Wait! You must have misunderstood my point. What I meant was…”
But I didn’t do it. I didn’t respond to any of them or attempt to defend my work. I knew it would get me nowhere, and I would appear pathetic and desperate. Plus, I read an online article about responding to criticism that reminded writers that additional comments will only push the negative reviews toward the top. Let them fizzle. Allow them to die out. That was good advice.
The next morning, I bathed in self-pity. I stayed in my pajamas, drank copious amounts of coffee, and read junky online articles. My kids were home with the flu, so it was really the perfect opportunity to turn into a sloth. I allowed myself to feel completely low and untalented. I ate chocolate and pretzels, and decided that because I apparently suck at this whole writing thing, I would make a list of other things I wanted to do instead. I planned to start my list after a long nap.
I was so embarrassed at first that I didn’t want to tell my friends and co-workers what had happened. But because there is safety in numbers, and because I cannot keep things quiet for long, I shared my experience with them.
I texted Patty, who reminded me, once again, that I should never read the comments. “It’s always hard to hear,” she said. “But it’s the price we pay for putting our work out there.”
I spoke with my department chair, who echoed Patty’s advice. She also told me about Henry, a 13-year-old writer and activist from Richmond, VA, who received incredibly nasty criticism online earlier this year. Henry’s posts about equality and the ACLU were met with insults such as “pawn," “autistic," and “crazy liberal.” He was even compared to Hitler youth. So, if people will attack a child’s ideas online, they will attack anyone.
In the midst of my funk, I did not discount the possibility that my article could have been a lot better. It was too idealistic, too fluffy, and I vowed to write more authentically in the future. I would allow my first negative experience to motivate my future work and help me develop thicker skin.
I now consider myself to be in great company, among writers and other artists who aren’t afraid to continue putting their work out into the world, despite what others may say about it. For most of us, it isn’t even a choice. It’s just what we have to do.
Andy Warhol said, “Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
Yesterday, I took out my list of things I want to do besides write. That page is still blank.