It’s been more than two weeks since my last post. Sorry about that. I fell into a k-hole of fried food, sweet tea and Southern hospitality courtesy of some amazing friends and family who’ve housed us in various cities in the Southeast since we returned stateside on July 4.
It’s strange to be back, since I’m not actually “home” per se. But it’s also really nice to be back in familiar territory surrounded by friendly faces. Speaking of home, we’ve settled on one in — drum roll please — Boulder, Colo.! We’ve signed a lease for a house after only having seen pictures of it on Craigslist, so here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out to be the housing equivalent of a Match.com date gone awry (or worse, a Craigslist Casual Encounters meetup). I’m cautiously optimistic.
Now that I’m finally over my jet lag, and the seemingly permanent suitcase creases are starting to fall out of my clothes, I’m getting back on my writing and reading A-game (the occasional Baby-Sitters Club e-book notwithstanding) by digging into the galley for my former writing instructor Theo Nestor’s new book, Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too). It’s not out till Nov. 5, and I’m just dying for everyone and their mom to read it so it can change your damn life (as a writer — or as someone who thinks she should get around to becoming a writer) because everything in it is just SO TRUE. It also reminds me of how scared I’ve always been to truly give a solid opinion on much of anything in life — in writing or otherwise — for fear that it would make people not like me.
Of course, this makes the fact that I used to have an opinion column in a newspaper during my early reporting days completely laughable. The topics were pretty silly. Rather than actually state my opinion about much of anything, I would write what my husband calls “classic Jen stories” — meandering tales about camping with my dogs or what I did on my summer vacation (no, really — I wrote about looking for sharks’ teeth on the beach) or how I really wanted a Beetle or why I would make a terrible president (I cry too easily). It was ridiculous. But I had a really supportive editor who looked exactly like Richard Gere, and I think he was just waiting, waiting for my own special brilliance to burst forth (it never quite did — or if it did, my self-esteem was too low to realize it). Eventually that editor peaced out and a fellow half his age who was eager to make his mark took over and told me no one really cared about my silly stories. He said the young folks in our little ski town, where the average age was 29, couldn’t relate to me — I was married, had a professional job, and owned a home and a couple of dogs, which I guess didn’t fit the bill in a town full of 25-year-olds, most of whom worked three jobs and had the same number of roommates.
He was both right and wrong. When I was out and about, someone somewhere always said something nice to me about the columns — because, you know, they were perfectly nice, much like myself. They weren’t necessarily all that funny or amazing or ground-breaking, but they were nice. Once I even got an email from a woman saying she had cut out my column for that week and put it on her refrigerator — success, right? Wrong. I needed to start having an opinion — about something.
So there I sat one day with the deadline for my column looming, and I couldn’t come up with how I felt about anything. I looked at my computer desktop, which was a giant photo of my dopey yellow Lab. Oh! I could write about taking her to the park and … no. Hmm. What else … I glanced around my desk: a framed photo of my other dog (yeah, I’m that lady), my wrinkled day planner (I spilled an entire glass of water across my desk at least once a week, and the day planner was always in its path), two empty Starbucks cups … Starbucks! I could write a column about Starbucks! We lived in a small ski town, where local coffee shops are king, and I frequented several of them multiple times a week. But sometimes I had a craving for the familiar flavor of a caramel Frappucino, which I felt could only be sated by Starbucks, of which the town had only one at the time in 2004. So I proceeded to write an op-ed about how I liked Starbucks but loathed the stigma associated with actually liking Starbucks.
I peppered the piece with parentheticals like (please don’t hate me) and (please don’t send me hate mail) and (I really love all the local coffee shops more than I love Starbucks — seriously, that’s not what this is about). But my editor chopped out all of my apologies, and what was left seemed to be a piece in support of a big, giant corporation in a teeny town full of independent businesses and individuals who loooove those indie businesses. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach when I saw the edited column in the paper the next day, and it was only compounded when the phone at my desk started ringing that morning as reader after reader called to berate me for supporting Starbucks and trying to drive the local shops out of business. I burst into tears at least five times that day (see: why I would make a terrible president).
And then the letters to the editor started rolling in — and being printed. This was the hate mail I had so politely in parentheses asked people not to send (a request that my editor had rightfully cut out)! One night that week, my husband, Brian, and I popped down to a favorite coffee shop near our house for dessert when I noticed a tiny photo of myself taped up next to the register — it was my column, along with all of the hate-mail letters that had been printed. Brian offered to rip the paper down and eat it. I told him it wasn’t necessary — I even felt like the hate-mail was completely deserved.
Everyone hates me! I thought. I’m a pariah! I’ll never drink coffee in this town again!
I had stated an opinion — though not very strongly or eloquently — and now people hated me for it. My fears had been realized. I eventually just gave up the column — and the job at the newspaper.
I was embarrassed and felt like I had let myself down, but after years of reflection (and more writing experience), I definitely learned a lot from that job. So what exactly did I learn?
1) You should actually believe in the opinion you’re stating. Figure out how you feel first — don’t try to stay too middle-of-the-road so that people will like you. No one really likes that. And if you’re just telling a story about something that happened — as in, no opinion necessary — have a distinct point of view. And stand up for yourself to the person editing your work. You won’t always win, and your work will more often than not actually benefit greatly from strong editing. But if your writing is being edited to say something you don’t think is true, say so. I wasn’t really stating a very strong opinion — if any — in that column. So my editor came up with one for me, and I let him.
2) Stand by your work, and understand that just because people disagree with something you’ve written that doesn’t mean they don’t like you as a person — even if they think or even say they don’t like you as a person. And even if they don’t like you as a person, who cares? I mean, honestly, how cool is it that something you wrote resonated with them in such a strong way — even if it is negative.
3) I now welcome someone who doesn’t agree with something I’ve said or written to engage with me — tell me what it is you think and why, and I’ll listen or read it. But that doesn’t mean that someone has the right to yell at me, curse at me, berate me or call me names — that’s where my caring about what they have to say goes right out the window. You can hang up on someone who’s doing this. You can delete their email. You can choose not to accept what they’re saying about you and your writing as truth.
Despite these hard-learned lessons, now nearly 10 years later, I’m still figuring out how to voice my opinion, my point of view and let myself be heard without fear of people hating me for it. So that’s one of my goals with this blog — and my writing in general — is to 1) formulate an opinion and 2) actually tell you — all five of you reading this — what it is. And I encourage you to do the same (and to go pre-order Theo’s book).