by Nancy Fulda
We are authors. We speak the words the words that burst from our souls and believe that, in some small way, they can change the universe.
Mostly, we do this by writing stories. Long or short, popular or literary (or both), we send our books and short fiction and poetry out into the world to touch the hearts and minds of readers. We’re good at it, and we like it. That’s why we do it. But sometimes, it doesn’t quite feel like enough.
In the modern world of the internet, it’s easier than ever to address others directly. And sooner or later, most authors come to a point when they feel they must speak out. It usually happens after you’ve gained a modest amount of recognition in the field. People are taking you seriously. You know that your voice be listened to, and whatever the triggering event happens to be – national politics, a scandal in the publishing world, or just a slow bubble of observations that eventually threatens to burst – you feel you have a responsibility to those who are not in a position to speak out.
And so you write a blog post.
It is the most difficult and most magnificent thing you’ve ever written, pure words of truth sucked directly out of your soul. You feel triumphant. Liberated. (Terrified, too, but that doesn’t matter now.) You have said the Thing That Must Be Said, and you have done so with courage and clarity. You click a button, and send your words winging toward humanity.
And then, of course, the internet does what the internet does best.
It starts kerfluffling.
Your post strikes a nerve. It gets tweeted, and retweeted, and blogged about, and linked to. Comments start pouring in, both for and against your position. Your inbox is overflowing. You put other projects on hold. Everyone on the internet seems to be talking about you, and even though you know it won’t last forever, it feels like it’s going to.
You know this is only a kerfluffle – a little one- or two-week community spat, nothing like GamerGate or any of the truly terrifying conflicts that rage on the internet. And yet your entire world is caving in. You are overwhelmed, and maybe a little bit panicked.
Like I said, it happens to most of us. And most of us, the first time it happens, have only a vague idea what to expect. Obviously the specifics will vary from person to person, but I thought it might be helpful to have a rough outline of how these sorts of things go down. Here’s one cobbled together from my own experiences and from observations of authors I know well:
Day 1: Positive feedback.
Your post is whizzing around the internet, and everyone seems to approve. Comments roll in: You are so brave, or Yes! Thank you for saying that! (There are negative comments too, of course, but they seem insignificant compared with good you have done.) You feel elated. Validated. You have given a voice to those who are silent, and every time you refresh your screen, you see that your words have traveled further.
Day 2: Negative feedback.
Your post has reached people with opposing viewpoints. Many of them. Blog posts pop up across the internet, criticizing and often misrepresenting your stance. Angry comments multiply like weeds. Email conversations ensue. You become embroiled in a number of difficult and confrontational exchanges, often with people who seem incapable of understanding what you’re trying to say.
You may get hate mail. Depending on what you’ve said and who you’ve said it to, the content of those emails may be very, very ugly indeed. Your hands are trembling by the time you click the delete button.
By the end of the day, you’re afraid to check your email. Comments are still rolling in, and somehow, even the positive messages only make you more aware of the bad ones. You wonder whether this was all a mistake. At the same time, you can’t stop refreshing your screen. The rest of your life has ground to a screeching halt; deadlines missed, meals skipped, loved ones neglected. Even when you’re not online, your thoughts are spiraling around what’s happened there.
And people are still retweeting your post.
Day 3: Collateral damage.
You are exhausted. You probably weren’t able to sleep, and even if you did it was only after hours of shaky brain-swirling. Your inbox is flooded with messages, many of which you feel obliged to respond to. As you sift through the praise (which doesn’t make you feel as good as you’d like) and the criticism (which hits like a bucket of cold water in the face) you discover an unwelcome truth:
You have hurt people.
Some of them were people you meant to hurt. (Or at least, people you were willing to inconvenience in order to make your point.) But some of them… some of them are people you never meant to hurt at all. These are the innocent bystanders, the people caught in the crossfire of your argument with an entirely different group. They think your words were meant for them, and send you messages of outraged indignation or politely-expressed horror. You’d like to explain that they’ve misunderstood, but realize it’s too late. The damage is done. Mopping up the mess won’t fix the broken bottle.
You can’t concentrate on normal life. Even when comments aren’t pouring in, your brain is trapped, spinning through a web of other people’s comments. You’re either peevish or apathetic toward your family.
And people are still retweeting your post.
Day 5: Exhaustion
It’s finally dying down. Your heart still goes into palpitations every time you receive a new notification, but less of them are coming, now. Every now and then someone comments on the original post, but you can’t bring yourself to respond. You have no energy. You are emotionally exhausted, wrung out like threadbare dishrag.
You just want it all to go away.
Day 10: Respite
A new controversy has sprung up elsewhere on the internet. You are secretly relieved. Everyone seems to have forgotten about you. (You are also slightly irritated because, well, everyone has forgotten about you.)
Life returns to normal. You begin to pick up the projects you abandoned. You find that you are able to produce words again. But you still jump into anxiety mode whenever a message arrives with that subject line.
Day 30: The Long Haul
It’s over. Except when it isn’t. You don’t know why, but little things – strange things – still keep reminding you of the internet conflict. You’ll read a post, or overhear a snippet of conversation, and down the rabbit hole your emotions go, racing in frantic spirals.
You try not to let it get to you, but sometimes you’ll lose hours – even days – to some random comment that had nothing to do with the original argument.
You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.
Day 100: Resolution
You are normal again. You’ve come to terms with the original controversy. The problem isn’t resolved, exactly. Real life is too complicated to ever completely resolve. But you’ve moved on, and are fully functional. You’re still glad you made the original post. You spoke your truth, and you don’t regret it.
But knowing now what you didn’t then – you wonder whether it’s an experience you’ll ever choose to repeat.
Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award winner, and a 2012 Hugo and Nebula nominee. Get a free ebook by joining her mailing list.