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.

Tagged: , ,

§ 31 Responses to They Hated My Orange Dress

  • raelynpracht says:

    What a great reminder to focus on what is said about the writing and not about you!

  • kim4true says:

    This piece really “resonates with me” (cliche and a half, but it expresses my feeling). Judging one another out loud, online is bad form. Period. Your point about it being you and not your work they are judging in the negative comments is spot on.

  • abigail Thomas says:

    well, screw them, Morgan.

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this essay, Morgan. When he was a new MFA student my son explained his apparent bravery in submitting this way, “Gotta get me some haters, Mom.” If you don’t have haters, he reasoned, you haven’t been sending your voice out into the world. Thanks for sending yours out and for telling us about your experience; it will encourage us to follow your lead. And yeah, what abigail said, above!

  • Julie Danis says:

    Oh boy, did this resonate. Being afraid of being called privileged (which I am) has muffled my voice many times. Then I read a post from a friend that made me think. “Stop trying to be liked by everybody. You don’t even like everybody.” Isn’t that the truth?! (I’m sure I would have loved your orange dress!)

    • Morgan Baker says:

      Thanks for reading. My feelings about being privileged, which I am, is to acknowledge it and what it has afforded you/me. I have finally realized that it is who I am – but I’m much more nuanced that the word itself. Everyone is. Making assumptions is not productive. Keep writing.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I like the point about engaging people, whether or not they are reacting negatively or positively. They are still engaged!

  • Beth says:

    I once wrote something about dogs and a reader wrote back to tell me I was fat. Then encouraged all her friends to do the same. Um…okay??? Not sure what that has to do with picking up your dog’s poop, but thanks for dropping by?

  • I bet the was a lovely orange dress. There’s just no accounting for taste. Thanks for this reality check.

  • Something about anonymity makes people think they can write nasty comments. Unless you’re famous, or at the Oscars, no one is going to write comments about your dress, but there’s something singular about putting your soul on the line in writing. While I’d prefer that people hate my orange dress rather than hate my writing or my life or my personality, in the end they are not the ones who are putting themselves out there, they have no courage, no original thoughts, and no creativity. So once I’ve patched up my hurt feelings, I say screw ’em.

  • Jill says:

    Smart, compassionate advice from a smart compassionate writer – thank you!

  • The critic who claimed not to even know who you are (ergo, you are no one) yet somehow knows that your children attended private schools is a liar. Said person must know who you are, to have personal information aout you and your children. Perhaps s/he met you at a party and was offended by your orange dress, ha ha. Exposing oneself honestly to the public is always brave. This person was lying. Very cowardly.

  • David Abend says:

    Loved this, Morgan. Most likely, critics who take shots at you have orange dresses they’re too chicken to wear.

  • Sandra says:

    Thank you for this piece. I know this situation well. Writers who tell their own stories are brave in a dozen different ways, whereas ad hominem attacks take no bravery at all.

  • hinakamran says:

    Nice article. I hate it when people get nasty and for no good reason. However, 95% of these people will not be able to say these things to your face.

  • I agree completely. In the end, connecting with our readers it’s the most important thing. I have had that wrong idea to please or to be kind with readers but my thoughts (or yours) are entirely yours! We would never be aligned to each other. It won’t be be humanity.

  • MIss Ev says:

    Hi, Morgan, I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. I know I am constantly looking for validation in just about everything I do: how many likes? How many friends? How many emails today? It’s exhausting, and I’m trying to let it go. Somewhere I heard a great quote: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
    Best wishes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading They Hated My Orange Dress at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

meta

%d bloggers like this: