Joan Didion has always been one of my favorite writers because I’ve always so easily found myself in much of what she’s written. The following quote being a good example of that:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Most writers don’t sit down knowing what they’re going to write. They write to figure it out. And in doing so hope to achieve some kind of forward momentum, however small. Each attempt at writing is a step on the path of discovery and clarity.
But there is also another reason I am a fan of Didion’s. Because of one specific idea she wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1976. She writes,
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
I’m pretty sure that truer words have never been put to paper. And I’m pretty sure that what I wrote earlier this week demonstrated this idea in a truly epic fashion.
There are many ways to gauge the quality of a piece of writing. By how many people read it. By how many people were moved by it. By how many people were angered by it. By its originality or clarity.
But perhaps the simplest way to measure the quality of a piece of writing is by how the writer feels after writing it. And when I apply that barometer to the blog post I wrote earlier this week, I can confidently say that it’s probably the worst piece of writing I’ve produced to date.
I certainly stand by what I wrote, but the fact remains that I regret writing it. And I have regretted it since the second I clicked “Publish.” For lack of a better description, I’ve felt like I needed a shower ever since I wrote it. Publishing it should have provided me with a sense of release, a sense of purpose and a sense of closure, at least for that small moment in time. But it did not. Which means I may have needed to write it, but it should never have been shared publicly.
Because the fact of the matter is that we do desperately need more critical literacy in the field of animal welfare. We need to find ways to create critical consumers of information who produce and process information for what it is, rather than blindly clicking Like or Share or Commenting, and tossing up a Facebook post based on emotion and ego. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. We’ve all made these mistakes, and we continue to make them.
But my post did two things, neither of which I am likely to live down anytime soon: 1) It caused additional grief in a space where there was already plenty of grief to be had, and 2) It wasted a golden opportunity to add something productive to the conversation, and to really dig into how we might help our field develop some of those critical reading and thinking skills.
I could have done justice to the issue of language and how we frame particular ideas for others using any number of other appropriate texts. The recent Esquire article on pit bulls, for example, would have been a great one to use since it may actually be one of the more counterproductive texts ever written on pit bulls.
But instead, I chose to tackle the issue using the most radioactive example of text I could find, because I was angry. I chose to fight fire with fire and managed to burn down half the neighborhood in doing so.
One person who read what I wrote actually made the comment that they “kept reading and reading trying to find the spot where I would say which camp I was in” and that they were disappointed that I never did. That is perhaps another major indicator of what a poor piece of writing this really was: That one of my readers so profoundly failed to understand what it was that I wrote.
The definition of a bad reader is someone who reads through a text, never actually comprehending anything in it or the piece as a whole, because they’re too busy looking for information in that writing to reaffirm their own beliefs. I used to do that as a reader. And once I stopped doing it, a whole new world of nuance, complexity and discovery unfolded before me. A world that allowed me to embrace the gray, and stop boiling everything down to black and white.
It was really unfortunate the way BAD RAP chose to frame that post last week, and I can’t say I’m interested in following them on this new path they’re on. But the way I chose to respond to it this week was even more unfortunate. And no matter how many times I click my heels and hug my dog, there’s no going back on such a monumentally unfortunate decision.
What I wrote was, as Didion puts it, a hostile act. And all I can do at this point is keep writing, and hope that I find a way to be smarter and more productive in doing so.