When I began writing a weekly column for a small chain of suburban newspapers, I was thrilled that I could write about anything as long as it fit the space (600-800 words). I had happened upon a lazy editor hungry for content (and eager to pay me as little as possible) and he gave me a chance, even though my newspaper experience was just north of nil.
Ronald Reagan was president then and I was a flaming liberal feminist, so what started out being a column about kids and cats and lovely Liz Taylor’s appearance on General Hospital turned into an ongoing rant against the establishment.
I lived near Detroit at the time and the auto industry was dying. People were losing their jobs right and left. Food banks were emptying out as fast as they were filled, and the churches serving the poor couldn’t keep up. I began to attend emergency meetings on poverty and reported strenuously on the suffering I found.
I wrote about women’s issues, about religion, about civil rights, about the still-strong feelings over Vietnam. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the letters to the editor began to take on a surly note, most of them directed at me. But I was. I was surprised. They hurt!
Letters to the ed hurt!
But I went on, learning some valuable lessons along the way. I learned to trust my own convictions but also to think things through. (Did I really believe it that strongly or did I just want to throw my weight around?) I learned to research everything that might be challenged; to make sure I knew what I was talking about before I let that column go. But most of all, I learned that my opinion, like my ego, was only of value to me. There had to be more if I was to keep readers reading.
I’m all for opinions expressed in public—even, sometimes, opinions I don’t agree with. If there’s one thing this planet has no shortage of, it’s opinions. They’re everywhere, online and off, solicited or not. By the millions.
Minimize the vitriol
So I decided long ago that if I was going to make a habit of taking on controversial subjects I would have to write in a way that was unique and worth reading. That meant I would have to keep the vitriol to a minimum, which in turn meant I would probably have to resort to something lighter—like humor–in order to prevent my visitors from taking a quick look and moving on. (It shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read anything I write that Dorothy Parker, Jessica Mitford, Molly Ivins and Nora Ephron are all in my inner mentor circle.)
But a thought about vitriol: Writing in a fit of rage only satisfies the writer. To the reader, it’s an exhausting exhibition of undisciplined, amateurish indulgence. No matter how deeply a subject affects us, we’re still the writers in charge. We’re writing to audiences who have come to our pieces with ideas of their own. As opinion writers, it’s our job to convince them that a few minutes with us is worth their while. We can do that by making anger and outrage interesting and maybe even fun. (On my blog, Ramona’s Voices, I wrote this piece about Right-to-Work in Michigan when I was so angry I could barely speak without hissing, but when I began writing it, I actually found places where I could crack a smile.)
So now we get to the comments. Some readers will be sitting in your choir, reveling in everything you write because it’s the same song they’ve been singing and they know the chorus well. Cherish those people, of course, but know that if you ever write anything they can’t abide, it’ll be the day the music died.
This is the worst from them: “I’m shocked. I really expected better from you.” And then they go on–but all you’ve heard is “I really expected better from you.” Because the last thing you want to do is disappoint your loyal readers.
But what if you’re right?
But what if you’re right and you know it?
Ah, now you’re getting it. When you choose to write pieces that smack of controversy, it’s your opinion that’s on the line. You can’t worry about anyone else’s. Always remember that when it comes to the battle of egos, yours is obviously much healthier. You’re out there in public doing all the work; they’re only commenting.
Another thing: As one whose writing leans toward controversy, you’re bound to run into people who hate you. Not just your writing, but you. But they’re much easier to handle than the readers you care about. You handle the haters by either ignoring them or banishing them. (Okay, in those rare moments when you can’t help yourself, you make fun of them—but you have to cut it short and move on. Else you’ve entered into a pissing contest and you know how they end. They never do.)
You’re writing for the people you care about, of course (which includes those who don’t agree with you but are polite about it), but in the end you’re writing for you. If you’re passionate about what you write, you write it with passion, with honesty, with no care in the world about anybody’s opinion but your own.
That’s my opinion, anyway, for what it’s worth.
What’s yours? Tell us in comments.
Ramona Grigg is a freelance writer who blogs at her political blog, Ramona’s Voices and at her quiet place, Constant Commoner. She is on the masthead at dagblog, and her posts appear periodically at Crooks and Liars and on other like-minded blogs. Now and then she finds herself in the newspaper and she likes that, too. (And did she mention she’s writing a book?)