It tends to start with an idle thought that passes through your mind briefly before you toss it away. You know you’re just worrying yourself for no reason. But nonetheless, that thought comes back a couple of more times, paired with a variety of butterfly inducing questions. Could that one line be misconstrued and taken out of context? Were you a bit too forceful in that last paragraph? Is this subject matter too out there? You thought it was all fine when you wrote it, but now that familiar, dearly hated feeling recurs — fear. You’ve put yourself out there in words and now you start to wonder if that branch you walked out on is going to snap, causing you to fall onto the pitchforks of an angry readership. Now, if you’re lucky you’ll catch yourself before your mind really runs away from you. You won’t let that sudden surge of fear stop you from saying what you believed, from submitting that essay or article or short story or poem or script to wherever it was going. Half the time, we’re not quite that lucky though.
I know firsthand.
Earlier this semester, I felt that surge of fear and asked one of my editors to delay an article at the last second. I wanted just a few more minutes to polish the language and make sure my message was clear and, frankly, uncontroversial. I was promptly informed, with several kind words of reassurance, that the article had already been published. There was no going back. I was left to sit in the embarrassment of my lack of professionalism, awaiting the horde of angry emails which were sure to flood into my inbox within the next 10 minutes. I felt that age old feeling that I think most writers feel all too often — the fear that you got too personal or too unconventional or too contrarian. The fear that people would come out and angrily tell you that you were wrong and moreover, that they would probably be right to say that.
Except those emails never came.
Nobody was particularly up in arms over the article, which ostensibly seems like a perfectly fine article to anyone not caught up in the throes of a semi-neurotic writer’s panic. Several people actually particularly liked it and reached out to me to say so. They had appreciated me giving voice to something they had experienced. I realized that my fear had, of course, been irrational all along. I resolved to write without fear and to ignore those lingering anxious feelings when pressing ‘send’ on any piece of writing. Easier said than done, but I made a resolution to try.
The truth is that it feels as though nowadays anybody sending writing out into the public sphere — regardless of whether it is creative or expository — is under an elevated level of scrutiny. In an era where a Facebook comment thread can become a hatefest in the span of minutes, it can feel like you’re risking your entire self worth with every potential piece of your writing. Ideas, especially those presented in writing, should always be discussed and challenged with vigor. When people find the ideas in a piece of writing abhorrent to their values, they should absolutely attack them publicly and explain their reasoning. The changes wrought in the past several years have been a boon in that regard. People are empowered to voice their opinions like never before, and that is undeniably a change that has yielded massively positive impacts. Yet the reality is that these changes have created certain negative impacts as well — especially for the writer who comes to feel an internalized, constant fear that what they say may be taken in extremes and used to attack their character.
This internalized fear becomes even more dangerous when it pre-censures our work. You know there are certain topics that you shouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole because of how contentious they are. You sit down to brainstorm about what to write, but you automatically resist certain ideas which you feel are too risky to you. Writers who have just begun to write are discouraged early on by the fear that writing can be a dicey proposition. Even if you manage to finish up that article or short story or poem or play, you hesitate before sending it off because you wonder if somehow you’ll be judged negatively for it. Our words stay in our minds and never make it to the page because we’re simply afraid.
This is not to say that writers should feel sorry for themselves or feel they are somehow entitled to carte blanche. Writing for any audience is inherently a public proposition, and the audience always reserves the right to react to your work. It’s also not to imply that somehow the developments of political culture or the advancements of social media in recent years are somehow unjust or negative. That’s not true either — it’s an enormous step forward for our discourse that our society is now able to bring in more voices than ever before and endeavor to treat all those voices with the empathy, respect, and consideration that every person deserves. What is important, however, is to remember that the written word is always the first word, not the last one. It is the beginning of an open conversation between writer and reader, not the final thesis on the human condition.
Regardless of what one writes, all writing relies upon some level of personal perspective on the world, and opinions are fluid over time. I’m a 19-year-old who writes op-eds, short stories, poems, plays and screenplays. I’m sure I will look back upon at least half of my current writing in 10 years and cringe. Like all writers, I’m going to get a lot of things wrong, but we should not frame the evaluation of a piece of writing over whether its ideas are “right” or “wrong” but, rather, over whether they raise important questions which prompt thought and challenge us to be better.
I always work hard in everything I write to treat every person, real or fictionalized, with empathy and respect, but I’m not always going to succeed. Sometimes even people with the best intentions can cause offense not out of malice, but out of lacking certain knowledge or understanding. Readers should absolutely convey to writers when they fail in this regard, but they should not believe that the writer wasn’t trying their very best to be empathetic and inclusive in their writing. People aren’t perfect, and we need to stop setting expectations that writers have to be. When we allow for writers to be human, we allow ourselves to learn the most from their writing and also to teach them the most in our reaction to their work. When we allow for writers to be human, we make our public discourse more human.
Andrew Lorenzen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.