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How to Love Hate Mail

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that my job — courageously and painstakingly cataloging the minutiae of my life — is extremely dangerous, if obviously rewarding, work. One is harangued by hecklers at every turn. Hecklers with access to a thesaurus, it seems.

But they teach me things, my detractors. Like when I think I’ve written something pithy and fresh, for example, they inform me it’s actually “ignorant and insulting drivel.” Or “revolting and self-indulgent.” Or even “a constant revelation of pitiful values,” which is important information for any writer to have about her work. Crucial, really.

Readers take issue with everything from my name and photo to my choice of topics and apparently flaccid sense of humor. They cast aspersions on my mothering (“How will your child turn out if this represents your view of society?”), my daughtering (“I hope your mother still speaks to you after she reads this article”), and even my granddaughtering (“You must not have loved your grandparents”).

It’s funny what people get riled up about. The columns I think will be most controversial are often read with a sniff and a yawn; others, intended merely as bites of amusement to be enjoyed with coffee, seem to launch passionate community-wide debates. Or at least a lot of online name-calling — which is fun, too.

I’ve been called a poor-mannered whiner and an insecure control freak with “an attitude of smug condensation.” I believe the author meant smug condescension, but I like the error so much that it is now a favorite phrase around my house. As in “Mom, how come I can see my breath on cold mornings?” “Just ignore it, dear. It’s just that smug condensation again.”

Some readers are not so much offended by my words as they are concerned for my soul. I get invited to church more often than I can laugh about.

There’s consolation, I suppose, in the fact that my column inspires readers toward heartfelt honesty and thoughtful metaphors, like the guy who stopped reading, then wrote to tell me, “I miss your column like I miss a root canal.” If I can help just one subscriber find his creative voice, well then…

But the critiques I enjoy most are those that are poorly written (I confess to forwarding them to my smugly condensed friends), and those that are right on the money, calling me out on my crap. Here are some recent favorites:

“Which came first: the desire for a hole in your nose or the desire to write a column about putting a hole in your nose?”

“Who is this woman, and does a third grader do her hair?”

“So life’s too short for oral hygiene, huh? You’re a real catch! Here’s a tip that will save you lots more time, and money, too: Stop using toilet paper! Just think of it. With all the time you’ve been wasting wiping your ass you could have written the Great American Novel by now!”

There’s one especially caustic reader with short-term memory loss who repeatedly pelts me with insults, always ending his rant with the promise that one day my breasts will droop, and then I’ll be sorry.

I’m usually quite diplomatic when responding to criticism; if I’m going to ask readers to care about my whims and fancies, I should at least be willing to hear theirs. But after one of the boob guy’s tirades accused me of being a wimp and a liberal mouthpiece and questioned my ability to hold on to a man, I could remain silent no longer. I responded thusly: “With all due respect, sir, you are way off base. My breasts are nowhere near big enough to sag.”

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