Brand building through storytelling

Why writers need ticked-off readers

My friend Nina and I were halfway through lunch when she mentioned the letter in this month’s MORE magazine. Top of the page, she said. Headlined “Granny dearest.” All about me and the “appalling” attitude I’d shown in my essay on becoming a grandmother. Some reader had her knickers in a knot because I had admitted to some mixed emotions over a toddler’s presence in my home all weekend, every weekend. “What really got her going,” Nina said, “was that line about Chardonnay and Ella Fitzgerald.”

Oh, right! A few months of dining to the Teletubbies theme tune, with the scent of Kraft Dinner in the air, had kindled a burst of nostalgia for Ella. My critic didn’t actually call me a spoiled, self-indulgent narcissist with no right to an adorable grandchild, but that’s apparently what she was thinking. I put down my fork, stopped in mid-bite by a shiver of something I couldn’t name. I just had to see that letter for myself—to meditate on every finger-wagging word and feel the chill of a stranger’s judgment.

If you’re one of those writers who take stands on incendiary issues, angry letters just prove that you’re doing your job. You attract such a clamour of outrage that no single voice gives you pause. Because I write about lessons drawn from ordinary life, I’ve grown accustomed to more heartening feedback. I keep an overstuffed file of letters, dating back at least 20 years, from readers who say that my words changed their life. “Your article inspired me to leave my abusive husband,” a reader will say. Or “When I read that you’d recovered from depression, I realized there was hope for me.” Then there’s the woman who recognized her family in My Mother’s Daughter, shared the book with her sisters and convened a wine-soaked dinner to share the new insights my story had sparked.

It all adds up to the biggest buzz I’ve known in the storytelling game—and my reward for not choosing a more sensible career, like tax law. I ask you: how many tax lawyers see ongoing proof that their work is brightening a corner of the world?

I might start to get annoyingly complacent if not for my ticked-off readers. Their aggrieved, insistent voices remind me that not everyone shares my take on things. However they frame their complaint, it always seems to have a subtext—a sour, despondent sense of being left behind. When a newspaper excerpted My Mother’s Daughter, I received a hectoring e-mail from a middle-aged man who began, “If the only way you can win your competition with your mother is to insult her in print and in public where she can’t answer for herself, I feel truly sorry for you.”

I was tempted to hit the delete key. But I found myself wondering who this man was, and what had moved him to track me down. Oh, the wonders of Google! He turned out to be an economist and a published author himself. In the virtual exchange that followed, I learned that he hadn’t read my book (surprise!). And that he had a very personal reason for taking offense—uneasy relationships with adult children who held grudges against their father. He wrote, “My parents, too, were not perfect, but having now had two kids of my own, I understand my own imperfections are as bad as, or worse than, theirs ever were.”

So what about this latest barb from a stranger? After lunch with Nina, I hot-footed it over to the closest newsstand and flipped to the “Granny Dearest” letter. As denunciations go, it was small-time stuff. I’m “in denial,” the writer says. I don’t understand that children “hold what is dear in life” and “should never be seen as an inconvenience.” It struck me that 20 or 30 years ago, this reader might have been at home with small children while I was dropping my son off at day care. That perhaps at some party or other, she’d been asked, “What do you do?”, then been cold-shouldered when she said, “I’m a mother.” I’ll never know for sure but I know this woman has a story. And if I meditate on it, I just might see the glimmer of an idea.

Posted by Rona

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