They Hated My Orange Dress
June 22, 2021 § 31 Comments
by Morgan Baker
“Oh my god,” I said. “Look at this.” I handed my laptop to my daughter, Ellie. We were in our TV room.
After many unsuccessful submissions, the Boston Globe Magazine had just published my essay and I was ecstatic. For their Connections vertical, I’d written about how stores and restaurants in my neighborhood were closing and what that meant to my family. Not only were we regular customers, my daughters had worked in these establishments. We had become friends with the store owners. I thought this was a piece about change and loss, something I’ve encountered a lot in my life.
Many readers, including the shop owners, liked and related to the piece, whether they lived in my neighborhood or another. They got the point—how we belong to our neighborhoods.
But there was a group of readers who didn’t like it—at all. My stomach clenched when I read their comments. I felt like the kid sent to sit at the doofus table at Thanksgiving. This was such a benign piece. Who can’t relate to loss? But these readers judged me, the person, on where I lived and what I did, instead of the words on the page.
One reader said he had lived in the same town his whole life and didn’t know who I was, so how could I write about this? He noted my kids went to private school (not in the essay), and made assumptions about my level of privilege.
Disintegrating in my rocking chair, I wanted to defend myself. My daughters, however, told me to stop reading the comments.
“I’ll read them for you,” Maggie said over the phone from California. She picked out some positive ones. “See,” she said, “they get it.”
When I teach creative nonfiction, readers can comment on each others’ writing, but not on the writer’s life. We are there to help writers tell their stories convincingly, honestly and emotionally, whether the topics are break-ups, sexual assault or drug use.
Knowing when to release your work into the world is hard. I revise and revise and revise again, but knowing when I’ve finished is based on my gut, experience, and asking my husband, a former journalist and editor, who reads and critiques all my writing. I write to process and understand my experiences, and I write to be heard, to share my stories and feelings, whether about my daughters leaving home, moving, life with and without our dogs, or writing and teaching. I want to connect with my readers and when that connection doesn’t work, it can be crushing.
Knowing when to let go of what other people think is hard, too. Who are these readers—the haters and the naysayers with the time and energy to write damning comments? Maybe they’re just angry and looking for a way to vent? Readers are intrigued by some writers and will never read others. Stephen King is a great writer, but I don’t do scary, so I don’t read him. I barely watch scary TV scenes. I usually throw a blanket over my head.
I want my voice to be read and commented on—but not everyone is going to like me, just like not everyone is going to like the orange dress I wore to a party (horror of horrors!) and that’s okay. Writing is a personal endeavor. Getting what you want to say right—in a way that conveys the meaning of your idea or experience—is challenging and fun. It’s like putting a puzzle together. When you’re happy with how the puzzle looks—the one on the table resembles the one on the box cover – you’ve done your best. Then let it go. Send it out, like you would your child on the first day of school. Some of the kids are going to like your daughter and some, believe it or not, won’t.
Take the praise, and either ignore the negative or learn from it. Are the less-than-flattering comments about you or the writing? It certainly stung when readers didn’t like me. But those same readers might not like me if we met at a party.
Sometimes negative comments are as important as the positive. As mad or disgusted the readers might be, I did engage them. Maybe not the way I intended, but they still read and reacted. I care more about connecting with readers than protecting myself—whether or not they like my orange dress.
Morgan Baker’s work has been published in the Brevity Blog, the Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, the New York Times Magazine, and The Bark, among other places. She teaches at Emerson College, where she was honored with The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching, and privately in person and on Zoom. She is the Managing Editor of thebucket.com and lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA.