Last Friday I saw Heather B Armstrong (Dooce) speak at Problogger. She spoke about the criticism she has received over 14 years of blogging. (She started blogging in 2001, "right after I hopped of my dinosaur"). As her session began, a recording played over the AV - her reading out the hate-mail she received. Things about her looking anorexic and people saying they hope she gets cancer and dies. She looked visibly upset, hardened from the abuse. She said she can't go to a play date with her children in case someone writes about her online. It was heartbreaking. The criticism on top of life's regular challenges can be unbearable.
Heather said the people who leave awful feedback are more deserving of our compassion than those who send praise. She believes blog critics have unprocessed pain all through their lives.mthey do not think bloggers are human. They are hurting.
It's easy to shake it off once, she said, but "until you run into criticism again, you're going to have to shake it off more". It escalated exponentially as her profile has risen. She advises against being defensive about the criticism - "There is no use for that emotion or energy whatsoever", she said. Being defensive never prepared her for the next wave of criticism.
She spoke of the lack of understanding from people who don't blog - they don't understand why criticism upsets us. It upsets us because we write from the heart - especially those of us who are personal bloggers. Our lives are on the line.
But we have to continue to tell our stories (and I believe only our stories as personal bloggers) - to make a difference to the world, to help othersMans to help ourselves. We have to write bravely. And readers need to respect that.
She seems like one of those writers whose entire body is impacted by the writing process - words tumbling out like she is running the race of her life, wiping her brow with relief when the final full stop is placed. "Courage is telling our story not being immune to criticism. If it didn't sting I wouldn't be able to tell the story."
Heather referenced one of my favourite writers Lindy West - recalling the story of when Lindy confronted her troll. I admire the strength of both these women, so when they tweeted me, I fangirled. Tellingly, as soon as Heather responded, a troll came out to play. Ugh.
I really liked how she told readers how to deliver constructive criticism: "constructive criticism is saying 'here's how you could have handled this better' so we can be self aware in righting wrongs". She encouraged readers to leave constructive criticism to do it politely, tactfully and kindly.
She also monetised the hate - taking the hate-mail and creating a blog and covering it in advertising. She made $10,000. What a way to benefit from a horrible situation. Here's that blog.
She ended by giving bloggers permission to shut down the criticism, to not give them airtime. "No one gets to come into your living room and take a poo on your floor. Delete negative comments." She also doesn't advise that we seek out negative comments about us (or for our friends to let us know we are being discussed). (She actually said 'poop' but I hate that word so I shortened it!)
I had goosebumps after her talk. So vulnerable, courageous and wise. It is hard to switch off as an online writer, and while the level of criticism and hate I've received has been small compared to others, it's there. And it can be frightening, and every harsh message makes me question my ability and place as a writer. Yesterday I posted something on Facebook about petroleum products and I saw the messages coming through and was terrified I'd be attacked for using paraffin for my skin. Because it's happened before.
While I think her talk might have scared new bloggers off, I don't think we should give up writing because of these critics. I think we need to look after ourselves, seek help when we need it, keep talking about ourexperiences to our blogging friends and colleagues and taking time away occasionally. It's so important these haters don't take over our esteem and talent. We need to cushion the blows as best as we can.
I snuck up the back of the room with a friend to meet Heather. I told her that I knew of her, but hadn't read her blog so had no preconceptions. She was grateful for that.
I told her about Reddit, and how I turned the hateful conversation around. I was so thankful - finally I heard from someone who knew a little of what I went through because of Reddit.
You can't switch off. These haters are hurting - while we are living our lives, they are so miserable in theirs, they bring others down. But we don't have to let them in. Thank you Heather Armstrong. I needed you in December 2013.
There's a lot more I have to share about her talks at Problogger - especially about her beliefs about personal blogging. Stay tuned.