Thickening Your Skin

March 9, 2015 § 16 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.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. 

§ 16 Responses to Thickening Your Skin

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Perhaps I agree. Perhaps I really want to talk about something else. I read memoir to learn about someone I don’t know and about how that person survives trouble, because we all have trouble. I don’t need “mitigating information” left out—I want it all. I want to understand. I want the complexity of the complete story, and to see someone make mistakes and own them.

    I had dinner with someone who had come across to me as very selfish in a memoir. The conversation at the table and the memoirist’s attitude toward readers confirmed the impression I had reading the book—this was a person who was so far from objective understanding of complicity that there was no hope.

    Another memoir piece about a father traveling with his adult daughter was so thick with sexual images, I was astounded no one in the workshop said a word about it. I did. The father was likely unaware of how the piece came across and anonymous readers would be far less kind than I was when they pointed this out.

    Where am I going with this? I think it’s fair to warn someone of the coming firestorm. I think we need a thick skin, but I think warning someone if I recognize that it’s coming is what I ought to do.

    But no one will thank me for that warning.

    • I would thank you. Some readers pointed out how troubling the opening scene of my novel was. If I was headed in that direction in the book, it would work, but I wasn’t, so I changed the chapter and cut the scene. I too think it is fair to warn someone of others’ reaction because a writer might be too close to the story to see.

    • 1WriteWay says:

      I love your response to Allison’s essay. Although I do think memoir is often more fiction than fact (while still being true to the author’s memory), would leaving out stuff make the memoir that much more fiction? And, really, especially if you’ve had the experience of a firestorm over something you wrote, warn others if you think they’re going down the same path but blundly. Still, I appreciate Allison’s call to develop a thick skin. It’s my own thin skin that keeps me from publishing.

      • Jan Priddy says:

        Thank you.

        You are quite right about memory, I think. Memoir is perspective, and I want to read an honest and particularly self-aware perspective. I do not have much patience with memoirs that merely scream—Oh, look at the awful things that happened to me—without showing either complicity or how they dug themselves out of the hole. Victims are not particularly appealing and neither is the person who fails to recognize their own failing. I think this is the reason Strayed’s Wild resonates with so many people. Dear heavens the stupid things she does—and completely owns every misstep!

        I have written about this myself—Mary Karr and Mary McCarthy both acknowledge that their memories are not in complete accord with other family members’ recollections. In contrast, when Richard Rodriguez insists you can’t go home again (once you adopt White culture) in Hunger of Memory, he fails to include the telling (but potentially dangerous detail) that he is gay. This had to wait for a later book at a different and more accepting audience.

        Several people suggest here we must write story while it’s still burning us. Ursula K. Le Guin calls such stories “hot lava.” I have read enough hot lava memoirs that I do not entirely trust them. It takes most of us some time to get over ourselves and our own stories in order to write clearly about our lives. At least, I find that to be true for myself. (And it’s why I have a blog, where I can rant to my heart’s content.) My goal in the memoir I am working on is not to disturb people, but to enlighten. Telling a nasty story is not the same as sharing wisdom, and I believe wisdom is hard won. Again, perhaps that is only my struggle.

  • Richard Gilbert says:

    Allison, your piece and Jan’s response are timely for me because I have two classes, an honors freshman seminar and an upper-level writing class, in a firestorm over a memoir. One question we are wrestling with is how or if one’s use of the retrospective narrator gets an offensive younger self/aspects off the hook. In this case, sensitized by my students’ eyes, this older writer’s persona seems like an indulgent parent—not offensive himself but amused and tolerant about his younger self.

    In class we have talked about the older, wiser persona who makes readers feel they are getting the story from a truly changed person. On the one hand, it is an effective rhetorical strategy to reveal (to an extent) one’s past flaws and mistakes, but on the other it risks turning off readers if you seem too flawed, and still unaware of that, or just a sociopath, monster, or simple boor. Because did you REALLY change? In my memory, this memoirist never addresses his youthful flaws from the now so much as tries to implicitly wave them away by exposing them for humor and candor.

    This in fact may be a case where his present writer self is unaware how disturbed some readers might be by his past character self. I wonder if he could have fixed this by addressing it from the now? Of course some readers might not trust that he’d seen the light after what he’s revealed. But maybe the only chance he had to consider that is if a friend-reader or an editor had pointed out where and how he creates cognitive dissonance.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Fair warning doesn’t mean the writer is not free to publish anything a journal will take on. On the other hand, allowing someone to walk blindly into a minefield, one with flags all over the place that are perfectly visible to the rest of us, hardly seems fair to me. Young writers, young to writing for an audience, may not have the perspective to recognize how their work will be seen. Part of teaching (I am a teacher) is helping them to develop an understanding of their reader.

      Sadly, this doesn’t mean I always see the flags myself.

  • […] “Thickening Your Skin” via Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • tinakmeyer says:

    So true. I wrote a piece about pedophilia from several perspectives not condemning it. I think it is great writing and it was a huge journey to write but whilst people compliment the writing they apologise for not being able to get through it. It begs the question of who we write for. I wanted to stretch myself but in so doing sacrificed an audience. The criticism stings but I’m still proud of the work and of making people feel uncomfortable.

  • This is fabulous. I regularly struggle with things I want to write about but am unable to. Some times I write but wait until so much time has passed the issue is not as sensible any more. Sometimes I bottle it up to be held prisoner inside my mind forever. I hope this is something I will become braver about as I grow more experienced as surely some of the best writing comes from the rawest of experience?

  • Akire Bubar says:

    Excellent post – I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I find I can learn a lot from negative feedback, even if it isn’t a pleasant experience. Not always – sometimes people just like to be critical – but sometimes something hits close enough to home that I have to stop and think about it. Or sometimes someone points out that a stranger’s interpretation may be very different from one who knows me personally. It’s very useful information if you can step back from it.

  • I appreciated your essay, and admire your courage. By presenting views you know will be controversial, and by inspiring debate in this way, you display the kind of courage most of us writers lack. Maybe that’s why we write fiction, rather than honest non-fiction.

  • tmcgohey says:

    On one level, this issue strikes me as a fundamental matter of traditional rhetoric: the relationship among ethos (appeal to writer’s persona),logos (appeal to reason), and pathos (appeal to emotion). For me, ethos of author / narrator, regardless of genre, is usually what makes or breaks a piece; it generally outweighs logos and ethos. Something in voice of piece strikes a chord with me, something that makes me trust the speaker, and not just because he or she says something I find comforting or agree with; far from it. It might be something highly provocative, even disturbing, but I trust the speaker not to manipulate me with with simplistic agenda or self-righteous conviction. To put it simply, I don’t trust a writer or persona that doesn’t implicate him or herself in the larger problems, comic or serious, raised in a piece. Unreliable narrators work in fiction, but never in nonfiction. Or at least, I can’t think of any such examples. Is it even possible to write a “good” personal essay with an unreliable persona, in the sense of speaker who ignores his or her own complicity in events? Anyone here think of an example? (and by “good,” I mean a piece in which much of the tension arises from a sense of ambivalence or ambiguity or painful / embarrassing self-revelation). For example, I never tire of rereading Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” because I love the way he rejects the solace of his comrades and turns the tables on himself at the end.

  • tmcgohey says:

    Oops, just now read Richard’s comments re “effective rhetorical strategy.” So I wanted to acknowledge that I was skipping behind him, splashing in his pristinely clear puddles.

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