Things I’m reading Thursday #28 redux: on anger and blogging
So, last week I devoted my Things I’m Reading Thursday post to the contest entries I’d been slogging through as the sole judge of the Swale Life Poetry Contest. I daresay a fair few of you read this post, which was written off the back of a long day at work followed by hours of leafing through countless anonymous poems. Many of these poems, I noted, had clearly been written by people who didn’t read any published poetry — and as you know, poets who see it as their divine right to write without ever having done any reading is one of my all-time personal bugbears. As you can imagine, the post in question was, as Lovely Boyfriend put it, “quite aggressive.”
At the moment, I am reading a truly excellent book of essays (expect a TiRT post on it very soon — probably next week) called The Bitch in the House, edited by Cathi Hanauer. It’s a study into the work, home and romantic lives of twenty-six women, all of whom have radically different ideas about sex, marriage, motherhood and gender identity. However, they all seem to have one thing in common: anger.
I’m a pretty damn angry person, and always have been. As a child, I raged against the great unfairnesses of my small world: my younger sister getting preferential treatment from my parents, the fact that I was blessed with a lumpen awkwardness that other girls at school didn’t seem to suffer from. I inherited a terrible short fuse from my father, and after learning at the age of about eleven that my ‘red mist’ was a) not something everyone suffers from and b) actually not a desperately appealing trait, I’ve spent my entire adult life so far trying to keep it in its box. I was relentlessly bullied throughout high school, for several reasons — I was 5′11″ tall by the time I was twelve; I was very bookish and a high achiever in most subjects; I had no idea whatsoever how to dress myself; I wasn’t particularly interested in boys (or at least, not the morons I went to school with). Rather than turning me shy and withdrawn, the taunts and thrown stones made me angrier and angrier. I knew I didn’t deserve this crap, but there was nothing I could do about it. The school did absolutely nothing to help me out — I was alone, and I was pissed off.
That pattern seems to have stuck. I have morphed from a pissed-off teenage girl into a fully-fledged angry woman. These days, I try to be angry about “more important things” — the rape culture and rampant sexism; my students coming into college with head-injuries having been mugged on their estate; political apathy. Elissa Schappell, whose essay in the book is about feeling angry and resentful towards her own children, describes this as “drawing a line in the sand” — knowing at what point your anger ceases to become useful, and making yourself stay on the right side. “When [my daughter] was small I was determined to teach her it’s OK for girls to get mad — that it’s normal, human, and not gender-specific,” she says. “And while it seems goofy and makes me feel self-conscious to hear myself parroting, use your words to tell me why you are angry. It’s fine to be angry, it’s good to express your anger… this actually works.”
I agree with her. I don’t see being angry as a necessarily negative trait — it’s one I’m stuck with, it seems, so rather than spend my time berating myself about it, I am going to do my damnest to try and use it positively, or at least keep it on a short leash. However, as Schappell points out, if you’re a naturally highly-strung person that’s not always easy. When you’re tried, preoccupied or stressed, it’s difficult to acknowledge that your short leash is starting to fray at the edges; it’s difficult to get into a headspace where you can stop, think, say to yourself “how can I use this feeling productively?” Sometimes, it’s possible to whip yourself into a frenzy of rage without even noticing you’ve done it.
That’s what happened to me last week, when I wrote the Swale Life blogpost. I sat on my bed, feet tucked into my blue feather quilt, cup of tea in hand, and ranted all my hard day’s anger and frustration into my laptop without even realising what I was doing. I sat calmly and comfortably, and typed evenly. I didn’t really have to think about what I was typing — it seemed to come naturally. And the fact that I was angry, the fact that I was writing in a decidedly confrontational and borderline unpleasant fashion, never occurred to me.
And it continued to not occur to me. A couple of days after I blithely hit the ‘publish’ button, I received an email from a reader (or maybe ‘passer-by’ is more accurate) who had found the post somewhat problematic. Her email was rather unfortunately worded: obviously written hastily and not particularly well, in a less-than-classy tone, and clearly with the basic purpose of chucking a stone at me from the moral high ground. I was mildly irritated that the e-mailer had seen fit to bring what I saw as her issue into my personal inbox (when the post’s public comment thread would — and I stick by this — have been a much more appropriate place), and as a result of all this, I chose to see the emailer as a lone, hyper-sensitive nutter, and carried on with my life. I still didn’t think twice about anything in the content or tone of my post.
Finally, another couple of days later, the contest organiser emailed me. Because he’s an excellent editor and a great all-round bloke, he wasn’t judgemental or unpleasant in any way. He simply told me that he’d received complaints about the blogpost from seven different poets, all of whom had entered the contest. He said he respected my right to blog my thoughts about the judging process and indeed the poems themselves, but said that in light of the complaints, and the fact that the results had not yet been announced, it might be a good idea if the post came down.
It was only at this point that the penny dropped. I looked back at the post and realised it was ranty, unprofessional, and yes, really very angry. I emailed the organiser back to say I would delete it immediately.
Since getting rid of the post — and good riddance to bad writing, may I say — I’ve been trying to fathom out why reading through the contest entries made me so angry. Yes, the standard of a great deal of the work was low, but that’s the case with any submissions call — I ran a literary magazine for the best part of three years, and have judged contests before. I knew to expect that. I also know that poets who read very little poetry other than their own generally have a disproportionately high opinion of themselves — after all, they have nothing to compare their work to. Finally, I’ve judged a contest very, very similar to this one before, only a year ago. I know the drill. The entries were pretty much exactly what I’d expected. How come I had such a severe, irrational reaction?
I think it’s partly to do with the nature of the beast. Probably as a result of my childhood and adolescent experiences, I like closure. As a magazine editor, I generally loathed having to let down submitters, and hated the afternoons I had to spend sending out rejection after rejection. However, if there was a poet whose work particularly smacked of I-write-but-I-don’t-read, or a poet whose bio note or cover letter was particularly arrogant or pernicious, I would take great comfort from sending them a letter explaining precisely why they had not been successful. In these cases, the act of sending the rejection letter was theraputic — being able to say “we’re saying no, and here’s the reason” drew a satisfying line under the whole intellectual transaction. But as a contest judge, you read the hundreds of pieces, pick out a winner, two runners-up and a handful of highly commendeds, pass the result back to the organisers, and you’re done. There’s never any contact with the poets — no chance to say “hey, I really liked the way you did x” or “the way you expressed y is why I won’t be taking this piece, but thanks anyway.” Looking back at the blogpost, I realised that was why I felt so angry. In spite of the fact that I had sole responsibility for the outcome of the contest, I felt frustrated, powerless and oddly surplus-to-requirements.
Clearly, I’m much more cut out for being an editor, and for being a teacher — for putting myself into a position where I can offer advice and give feedback — than I am for being a choosy but impartial, committed but distant contest reader or judge. I’m much less likely to get angry about something if it’s under my nose where I can see and interact with it. So if you’re a poet, please don’t be afraid of me — just strike up conversation. Let me get my bearings.
Tags: advice for young writers, anger, blogging, blogs, competition, essays, frustration, highly strung, judging, poetry contest, publishing, red mist, resources for young writers, the bitch in the house, young poets