January 21, 2014

4 Lessons I Learned from Writing Online.

I’ve written over 400 articles and blogs over the past three years. It’s a wonderful writing practice—and great to help me keep my ego in check too.

There’s this thing that happens when you move from just writing to sharing your writing: your audience becomes a reality. When we write, there’s always an implied audience, even if it’s an audience of one. The act of writing words is communication, even if at times it feels like a small paper boat sent out on an endless ocean.

But writing online? That’s a whole different beast. We have an audience, and often times the audience that shows up brings their own baggage and agenda to the show—for better or worse.

Writing in a format with the immediacy of the internet and the capability for readers to respond is both wonderful and soul crushing at times. For every person that loves what you have to say, there may be 10 more who decide they hate you. And it isn’t always fair. Sometimes readers latch on to one phrase of your article that rubbed them the wrong way, reminded them of their ex-girlfriend—or they just felt like ranting about something that was vaguely related to what you wrote about because they can.

The dialogue created by the “blogosphere” has the potential to create amazing conversations on important issues. But often, it creates an atmosphere where people, emboldened by the anonymity and distance of the internet, proceed to vomit out any negative thought conjured by your words (or what’s leftover from their therapy session earlier that day).

A few things it’s taught me:

1. The more grounded you are in your beliefs, the less you need others to agree with you.

The first time someone disagrees with you—in print, in public—it’s like getting slapped in the face. After writing a particularly controversial article and dealing with the ensuing comments and hate mail, I thought I’d never want to write again outside of my journal. But, after some soul-searching, I realized that getting wound up about what some anonymous strangers on the Internet thought about me probably wasn’t worth my time.

When you believe in what you are saying, it still hurts if someone trolls your article or misunderstands, but the disagreement is easier to respond to graciously. This transfers well offline, too. How much power do we give the opinions of others? The people we love—sure, those opinions are huge. But random acquaintances, strangers, people who we don’t even really like? It’s okay to let go of trying to get them to understand where you’re coming from.

2. There’s always something to be gained from feedback, even from negative feedback.

There’s a principle that relates to bone growth called Wolff’s law; the gist of it is that our bones grow stronger and denser in response to the stress placed upon them. When we get positive feedback, it’s like water and sunlight. The tough stuff, well, that’s Wolff’s law for our writer backbones. When we are criticized, online or off, it’s an opportunity to examine what we’ve said and see if there’s somewhere we went wrong.

And if we examine and find no reason for revision, we can still learn from it. We can learn that other people’s reactions don’t have to dictate our own. This has been a big one for me, online and off. In fact, I think it might be one of the biggest lessons of my adult life. In our lives, we get to choose whether we are going to set the tone, or be tossed here and there by every passing emotion. We can feel it all, and still remember where we go from there is a choice.

There may always be that piece of us that feels justified in verbally ripping up someone’s argument when they’ve been obnoxious to us in comments or in real life. That piece is tameable. We can choose our responses.

3. If everyone likes what you are saying all the time, you probably aren’t saying anything important.

There’s a Zen saying “It is the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down.” Ugh. But being liked feels so much better! That’s the key. When we are so wrapped up in the applause, the booing hurts even more. I’ve seen writers who seem hell bent on stirring the pot, and others who are determined to stay right in the middle and never piss anyone off. If you write from the heart (and live that way offline, too) it has a great way of weeding out your life.

When we hold back or shortchange what we really want to say, we do a disservice to ourselves and whoever’s listening (or reading) too. I’ve found that the more I stick with being authentic, the more I enjoy my life and the people in it. It’s hard to hang on to phony or unhealthy relationships when you’re being genuine, but the good ones, with people who really “get” you only get better that way.

4. There are some things to consider before we dish out “the truth.”

I have a little issue with honesty. Ever since I was five or six, or whenever it first occurs to you to try and bend the truth, I’ve turned beet red and stammered whenever I tried to lie. At some point, I realized it was going to be easier just to be honest than to try and get over it. I keep this focus in my writing as well.

But there’s more to being truthful than just “not lying” and this is important on the page and off. The Sufis taught a story about the four gates that our speech should be able to pass through: Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true? Is it timely? There are many times where we might have something to say that’s true, that doesn’t meet those other criteria. And while journalism need not always be “kind,” I think we can all agree that seeing writers consider more carefully whether what they are writing is necessary or timely would be a huge step in the right direction.

Whether you blog daily or stick to writing in a journal that no one but you reads, writing is a practice that reveals parts of ourselves we might not otherwise see.

If you chose to share it with the world, you may not always get applause, but you will definitely learn lessons to take off the page as well.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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