Thursday, March 24, 2016

Alice Bradley on the Stupidity of Writing (and/or Living) for People who Dislike You

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I'm delighted to introduce today's guest, Alice Bradley. She's a writer (Let's Panic About Babies), award-winning blogger (Finslippy), podcast host (League of Awkward Unicorns), and all-around badass, who's also working on her first novel. 

Recently, Alice wrote a post that resonated with me in a big way, titled "The Stupidity of Writing (and/or Living) for People Who Dislike You." ("It's as if you hear all the voices in my head!" wrote one of her fans — and I feel the same.) 

All of us who put ourselves out there (whether as a novelist, a blogger, or — hey — a human being) can one minute be having fun with our passion, love, and creativity, and then the next hear the negative voices (and there are always negative voices and punishing people — that's one thing to count on in this life, it seems) who seemingly want us to stop, to quit, to play possum, or worse. 

But we can't quit, not if we want to be true to ourselves, make the art we want — and lead the life we want. 

And so, what to do? 

Thank goodness, Alice has some advice. Welcome!

It was never clear to me what started it; over a period of weeks 
and months I was just frozen out. People who had once laughed 
at my jokes were now rolling their eyes. Then walking away. And 
when I asked them what I had done, they said, God, you don't 
understand anything. I’d call and their moms would say they were 
busy and their moms would sound embarrassed. Like that. If I had 
to dig through my memory I’m positive I'd find I wasn’t blameless, 
but luckily no one’s making me dig through my memory. (It’s messy 
in there.) 

So that’s hard to remember, but what’s even worse were my attempts 
to change their minds. Because I did not say, “Well, screw you” 
and concentrate on the few good friends who stuck by me. Oh no 
I did not. 

Instead I engaged in desperate and frantic bids to get their friendships 
back. Showing up at get-togethers that I wasn’t specifically not invited
to. Breakin’ the rules and gettin’ suspended to show that I was a real 
bad-ass. (And apparently dropping my g’s.) Worst of all, I made up 
gossip, literally made up dirt on people, to show that I was somehow 
in the know and worth hanging out with. You can imagine how well 
that turned out. 

In my spare time I was learning what "panic attacks" were and 
breaking out into epic rashes (the family dermatologist was fascinated 
by me that year), and when I was at school I playacted at being an 
asshole. Somehow I thought that if they didn’t like me, maybe they’d 
like this frantic, aggressive version of me. 

This strategy, not surprisingly, backfired, in that not only did they 
dislike me even more, the few people who were still brave enough to 
be my friends were beginning to see their point. Is it a coincidence 
that the one friend who was kind enough to sit me down and tell me 
what a dick I was being, and then forgive me when I acknowledged 
said dickness, is now a priest? It is not. She is a goddamn saint. 

The whole situation was pretty excruciating, and the only thing that 
saved me was graduation. 

This particular story was a dramatic example but not an exception to 
how I like to focus on someone who doesn’t like me and try and make 
them like me. I’ve homed in on the one person in my life who doesn’t 
think I’m all that charming and used all my charm to change their 
minds. And do you know what? This has always failed! Sometimes spectacularly! 

If someone doesn’t like you, it’s probably got more to do with them 
than you, but either way, I've learned, there’s not too much you can 
do about it. Unless you’ve actively been a terrible person, in which 
case you should quit doing that, for everyone’s sake. 

I’ve been thinking of this period in my life recently, because I found 
myself recently trying to understand why I’ve struggled with blogging 
over the past few years. Since I started it in 2004, Finslippy has been 
one of the most joyful experiences of my life. I gave it my random 
thoughts and it gave me friends, positive feedback, a book deal, 
television appearances, a stream of writing gigs, crazy speaking 
engagements and video projects, and more than one job. I owe my blog so much.

It also provided me with the weird sensation of reading about how 
much some people weren’t into me. Of course, right? Once your 
audience extends beyond your friends and family, it’s inevitable that someone’s not going to think you’re particularly interesting. I always 
knew that. I just didn’t know people would find me so not-that-great 
that they’d be compelled to write about it. And that so many people 
would agree with them. 

I am not a special case. This is in no way unusual. It happens to 
everyone who's put anything out there in the world. It’s the byproduct 
of creative output. If anything, I’ve gotten off easy. I’ve gotten off 
easy, though, because I’ve pulled back. And I’ve pulled back because 
the negative feedback was too painful. 

And it’s not like I was being attacked on the regular, by any means. 
All I got were a few comments on a forum here and there. A 
discussion thread or two about how non-exemplary I was. A couple 
of Google alerts let me know that I wasn’t nearly as great as I 
(apparently) believed. A couple of emails informing me that I’m 
a garbage dump of a person. That kind of stuff. 

In realizing that I wasn't alone with this phenomenon, I also read 
scathing attacks on my blogging peers and my friends. I sort of...
obsessed over these attacks. I saw people I understand on a cellular 
level being ridiculed and dismissed. No one was making me read 
those sites. But somewhere in the weird little frightened squirrel 
part of my brain, I was taking notes, trying to figure out what these 
people who hated everything would like, how I could be that cool girl 
who’d get a pass. 

It didn’t take long for me to really get these people's voices in my 
head. I became increasingly careful with what I wrote. I edited and 
re-edited. I second-guessed and didn't hit publish. I became 
increasingly self-conscious and reactive and every post just felt 
harder and harder. And then I gave up. It wasn’t fun anymore. 

But who made it un-fun? I did. I denied myself the joy of writing shit 
that I wanted to write. How stupid is that? Who was this benefiting? 
A few people who probably weren’t paying any attention? Would 
these people spontaneously contact me and say, “You know, I used to 
think you were boring and unfunny, but now that you’re not writing at 
all, you’ve really grabbed my attention. Want to get drinks?” And then
we’d get drinks and we’d be best friends and everyone would like me 
again and I’d be voted Most Misunderstood But Secretly Great? 

This is silly. It’s so silly. There’s always going to be someone who 
doesn’t think you’re great. Don’t read it. Don’t read negative shit in 
general, actually: it’s poison. 

And if someone doesn’t like you enough to fire off an angry missive 
about how you're the worst, just rest easy in the knowledge that that 
person is a miserable chafe of a human being who doesn’t deserve 
your time and energy.

Then reply, “For the last time, I’m not going to have sex with you.” 

This always freaks them out. Because secretly they wanted to have 
sex with you. They all do. Because you’re super hot.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you, Alice! And you are super 
hot, darling. 
Reds and lovely readers, have you ever gone out on a limb with 
something (artistically, personally) only to get a lot of negativity? 
(Not constructive critisism, of course, but that really personal, 
vindictive stuff?) Did it ever stop you for a while? Did it stop 
you completely? How did/do you deal with it? And how did you, 
or will you, triumph?
Please tell us — and Alice— in the comments!

ABOUT ALICE BRADLEY: I'm a writer, and I live in Brooklyn, 
New York, with my husband Scott, my son Henry, my dog 
Hazel, and Izzy the cat.

I write both fiction and nonfiction. I've written for all kinds of 
publications and websites. So many. At some point I'll provide 
a list, I promise. 

I've been writing Finslippy since 2004. I've been called a 
parenting blogger, but these days I write quite a bit more about 
creativity, art, depression, city life, our surly cat and peeing 
Chihuahua, my extended family, and sometimes, okay, parenting.

I've got a podcast with Deanna Zandt called The League of 
Awkward Unicorns, It's about mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc. etc.) 
and emotional wellness (things that help, whether it's 
medication, exercise, or wrapping oneself up in a Snuggie 
while binge-watching The Mindy Project). Find us on iTunes 

In March 2011 I co-authored a book called LET'S PANIC 
ABOUT BABIES! with the beloved Eden Marriott Kennedy. It 
was published in St. Martin's Press, and we're quite proud of it. 
You can read all about the book (and enjoy our book trailer, 
excerpts, and reviews) over here.

I love emails from readers, although I can't always reply to them as 
quickly as I'd like. My favorite comments from readers include 
the following:

"You write as if you're listening to the voices in my head."


"I usually find things amusing online, but don't always laugh, 
like with my voice. 

Today I did."

If you have anything to say, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks.


Joan Emerson said...

Thank you for a wise and insightful post, Alice. Your school experience is the sort of thing that I think many of us can relate to, and I have to admit it’s something I’ve simply never understood. Nor do I understand the propensity for some people to go out of their way to say/write mean-spirited negative comments.
I admire folks who have the wherewithal to forge on with things that are important to them despite those negative people; I am so not good at putting myself out on that limb.
Now I’m going to check out your blog . . . .

Edith Maxwell said...

Also offering my thanks for your funny honesty! My seventh novel is coming out shortly, and it's the first in a new series, so of course I'm nervous about it. I've already read a bunch of glowing reviews - and a couple of scathing ones. Big swallow, straighten the shoulders, and carry on with what I love doing: writing stories.

However - the right margin of your post is cut off. Susan, somebody, please fix it! I could figure out most of the missing words but not all, and I didn't want to miss anything Alice said. Thanks.

FChurch said...

Alice, definitely will be looking out for your blog, podcast, book, hmmm.... pretty much anything else you come up with, too!

When people criticize my work, I think (first) that they can't possibly have read/understood my masterpiece, then (second), I consider what they actually said. Sometimes (urgh) they're right ("Your male character is such a wimp!") Dang it, he was absolutely right--I was so busy concentrating on the female lead that I didn't give enough thought to the male. Other times, it's clear that it's not me or my work--the critic is just venting their general toxicity in my direction--lucky me! To balance that, every once in a great while comes that thunderbolt of encouragement that makes your heart sing! So keep doing what makes you happy!

Gram said...

We have enough negative thoughts in our heads without listening to others...say what you should have said in high school Alice (and others)...

S. E. Warwick said...

Was it Eleanor Roosevelt who said something like "no one can make you feel bad without your permission" to provide a strategy for dealo g with the mean girls of life? It's good advice, but we don't stumble on it during adolescence.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Working on fixing the margins of the blog... Thank you for your patience!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Horrible high school. HORRIBLE. And horrible college, too, especially the time I discovered they had PLANNED to upset me. WHo would do that?

I am still saying yes too often, but I try to understand, as you say, sometimes it's their problem, and whatever anyway.

Criticism is one thing, destruction is another. But what wants dull moments, right? Off to find your blog!

(And if the margins don't get fixed--sometimes Blogger just WON'T do it--we can play mad libs.)

Jungle Red Writers said...

OK, I've fixed the margins. There are problems here I am too much of a Luddite to understand, but at least it's readable now!

Edith Maxwell said...


Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Welcome to JRW Alice--I hope we are never ever the mean girls here. So sad about your high school experience and your blog. May the joy return soon, as it sounds like you've given so much of that to others!

Mary Sutton said...

Your high school experience sounds like mine, Alice. And we probably had the same number of friends. I also spent a few years trying to figure out what I was doing "wrong" and I could "fix" so the cool kids would like me. Somewhere around my junior year I realized I didn't really want to be part of the "cool kids crowd" and said "screw it," but secretly I hoped they'd come around and realize what an awful mistake they'd made. It didn't happen until 20 years later. At a reunion, some of them actually apologized for being so awful.

My daughter is a sophomore. Recently, one of her friends did something that really got to her. As she put it, "You can only put up with someone who is all about herself and tries to make herself look good by trashing you for so long." My daughter didn't try to chase this friend, nor did she try to make the friend feel bad. She just said, "When you're ready to grow up, I'll be here." And she went to hang with her other friends. I was very proud of her for learning at 15 something that took me years to figure out.

I know that not everybody will be in love with me or something I create. But when that magical day comes that I actually have a published novel, I dread that first negative review!

Alice said...

Thank you, everyone! So nice to be here among friends.

I wanted to add that after that post, two of my high school ex-friends wrote me the most stunning apologies. Well beyond anything I could have expected. It wasn't the point of the post, but I have to tell you, it was incredible.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Alice! Again, so sorry about the margins -- technology -- ack!

Toxic people, wow... The online crap you can avoid, but when it comes to your inbox... That's why I have an assistant to read stuff over before I see it and delete anything mean. And by "assistant," I mean my son's babysitter who reads the web site inbox once a week. But still, it's helped. There are some crazy people out there and now I don't have to read their stuff.

Julia said...

Alice, what a wonderful outcome to your post! So much of that kind of negativity - in teens and online - is driven by immaturity, insecurity and fear. Although there are people for whom being mean gives them pleasure, which always seems like drinking brine to quench thirst.

I once had a woman send me a handwritten letter from Canada excoriating me about my vulgar, poorly written and unchristian books (all of which she had read.) This took effort - she had to add extra postage because it was another country! I pictured her cackling wildly as she slipped the missive into the post box. Whatever floats your boat, lady.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Julia, seriously? That's so nuts! And postage and everything -- an email is so easy to do, but a real letter... The mind boggles.

Unfortunately, I have family members who indulge in online toxic behavior, but I put it down to mental illness — one is bipolar/paranoid and one has borderline personality disorder — both have dementia. It's sad.

Rhys Bowen said...

Great piece, Alice.
I have trouble with bad reviews, the one stars on Amazon that are unfair and just wrong. I try to ignore them but really I'd like to find the person and throttle them while yelling "you just didn't get it, did you, moron?
Then I calm down and tell myself it was just one person.

Kait said...

Wonderful piece, Alice. It threw me right back to High School where I was definitely NOT one of the cool kids, but not for lack of trying. I even think begging crossed my mind.

These days I wish I could say life is different, but the truth is, the adult part of me wants to say, "you and the horse you road in on," while the high schooler that lives in my heart wants to say, "please, tell me how can I make it better." Generally, the adult wins by declaring, "oh give it up, it's their problem not yours," but the high schooler does brood for a while!

Cool that you got apologies.

Libby Dodd said...

Short and sweet--
You Rock!

Ellen K said...

If some people are going to adore you (and your writing) for no discernible reason, others are going to abhor you (and your writing) for no discernible reason. Some will get your sense of humor, others will take offense. Some will hate your politics; some will seek to join forces with you. Some will ask your advice or opinion, and then reject it (and you).

Even as an adult, you will find that some friends will suddenly cut you off without an explanation, while others will display a loyalty you feel--often guiltily--you haven't earned. You know what? There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Stick with the ones who stick with you. Life's too short to worry about the ones who defect.

Edith Maxwell said...

All this has reminded me of a woman, J, I thought was my friend ... until I got divorced. Suddenly she didn't have time to go walking, gossip over wine, nothing. What I finally figured out was that she and her husband "chose" my ex over me. I had other friends who stayed friends with both of us, sometimes inviting us to the same party. 14 years later I still have to keep reminding myself that it was J's problem, not mine.

Joan Emerson said...

Rhys, what amazes me most about those “one star” Amazon reviews is the reviewer who writes the comment, “I loved this great book!” and then gives it one star . . . .

Alice, How wonderful that you received apologies from those now-grown girls, and how heartening it is that they actually realized they owed you that apology.
I’m amazed by how many of us have faced similar situations in high school; when you’re a kid and you’re in the midst of all that nastiness, you have a tendency to think it’s only you, that you’re the only one who’s been singled out for this treatment. I know I absolutely hated high school because of it and, sad to say, it still goes on. Now defined as “bullying,” many schools have a tendency to look the other way and, by doing nothing, give their implicit approval to that horrid behavior. It’s a sad, sad situation . . . .

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Yay! This post and the comments make me so happy. Thank you, everyone, who's commented so far, for showing your vulnerability and compassion. Toxic people are the inevitable consequence of blogging, writing, puttering yourself out there in whatever form — and I think it's great to talk about openly. It's not going to go away -- but we can change the way we look at it.

Deborah Crombie said...

Alice, what a great post. And thank you, Susan, for introducing us to Alice. It's very comforting to know other people deal with the same issues.

I wasn't popular in highschool, but now I think it was more my perception of "they don't like me" than kids being actually mean. But being a published writer? !!! I never imagined people could be so hateful. Yes, there are the one star reviews. I don't read them. In fact, I don't read the good ones, either, because then when I write I find I'm trying to please the people who said nice things.

But the worst thing has been letters and emails. I've had people, like the lady who wrote Julia, tell me that I am a terrible person (and much less politely than that, too.) On a really bad day, when my mom was very ill, I had three like that in a row. I burst into tears and took my email address off my website for two years.

My husband, logical person that he is, said, "Ninety-nine point nine percent of your emails are really nice. Why do you let the bad ones upset you so much?" He's right, of course, but I think it's just human nature.

I know it's their problem, not mine, but I have a hard enough time turning off the editor in my head without input from nasty people...

Any advice appreciated.

FChurch said...

Deborah, you turn off that nasty editor in your head and the idiots who trash you by lining up all of those marvelous books you've written, put your fingers in your ears, stick out your tongue, and say loudly "Nyah, nyah, nayah! So there!"

Deborah Crombie said...

Thanks, Flora!!! xx

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Yes, the week Miss Edna dies, I got maybe three or more horrible emails -- that's when I asked my son's sitter to be my "assistant" -- just couldn't deal. And here's the kicker -- less obnoxious emails. Is it because there's someone else looking over the emails or because the assistant is a young man? Especially since the more vindictive emails have been from older men? Alice and I had an interesting discussion about this....

Alice said...

I think it's interesting that people always assume the friends from high school were girls--actually a bunch of them were boys. I received an apology from one woman and one man. Anyway, it was great.

I never ever (EVER) read Amazon reviews or Goodreads reviews, I just don't. Those aren't for me. They're for other readers. I'll accomplish nothing by spending time on them. And I don't have any particular amounts of self-discipline--I'm all or nothing, so once I've read one review I'll read them all and then I'll have to lie down in a blanket fort I'll have to construct. Who has the time?

Emails sent directly to you (and letters!) are another animal entirely. Obviously you can't stop reading emails.

People are strange.

Angela Lee said...

Thank you to Susan for bringing Alice to the blog today and to Alice for the blog post that really spoke to me.

I had similar experiences in junior high and high school. Girls were so incredibly mean. I never really understood why. It's funny that most of my close friends I have now are the ones I met after high school.

I feel that in general there is so much more negativity and meanness out there. I guess the internet with its anonymity is a big part of it, but I feel when I'm out and about that folks just aren't nice to people like they used to be.

I've never had anyone be mean to me on the internet, but I definitely have seen it done to others. I don't feel that Amazon reviews are really accurate anyway, so I don't pay attention to them. What I do appreciate is blogs like this one, Kristopher's BOLO blog, and others that don't have negative reviews. I would rather hear about books people enjoyed than not.

Alice, I will definitely check out your blog, podcast, etc. Thank you for being here today. :)

Kathy Reel said...

Alice, it's so good to meet you here. You sound like so much fun. How could anyone not like you? And, you talk about something so important to enjoying one's life. Not everyone is going to like you, and that's okay. I didn't really have to deal with this until I got married and early into my marriage. My mother-in-law is a good person and well liked, and we were doing great until I quit my teaching job. That was not what she wanted me to do and not who she thought I should be. For years, even when I got back into education, we struggled because, although I knew she cared about me, I didn't think we particularly liked each other that much. Now, comes the big problem, in that I pretty much grew up thinking that everyone should like me. It has taken a long time, but I now know that my mother-in-law and I will never think alike and that I will never get her golden seal of approval. But, that's okay. I don't let what she says or doesn't say (like tell me I'm a great mother or wife or person or dog walker) influence what I think of myself. I love her because she is my husband's mother and my children's grandmother, and we get along nicely. She will just never get me.

I actually had a good high school experience and was in the "in" group, although I really never thought of it that way. I had good friends who weren't in the most popular group, too, and I would sometimes go eat lunch with them instead of my "it" group. For me, I seemed to be able to slip in and out of more than one clique. Of course, I don't know that the pressure to be popular was as intense when I was young. I know I did have the pressure of excelling in all I did in school, and I guess that being popular was in that mix, but there weren't the mean girl problems. Maybe because we all grew up together in a small town helped. And, I'm willing to admit that someone else might have had a different perspective on it, someone who existed on the fringes. I just never liked to leave anyone out, and I still don't.

I hate that authors have to deal with bad reviews, especially the authors that I love, like the Jungle Reds. Rhys, how could anyone ever give you a one-star? I can't believe the person actually read the book. And, I absolutely can't understand why people send hateful emails. Debs and Susan, dealing with something that senseless when your loved ones have passed or are ill has to be horrendous. And, Julia, that woman from Canada defies explanation, too. How people can get any satisfaction from making another person feel bad about herself is unimaginable to me. I'm not sure that those negative messages can be completely ignored, as ugly words do hurt. Lucky is the person that has grown the thick skin against that hurt. Alice, your advice is spot on when you say "that that person is a miserable chafe of a human being who doesn’t deserve your time and energy." Of course, your reply is perfect, "For the last time, I’m not going to have sex with you." Hahaha! A wicked sense of humor is always the best defense.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Humor is basically the answer to (almost) everything, I have learned...

Linda Rodriguez said...

Alice, what a great post! I love this! "Then reply, 'For the last time, I’m not going to have sex with you.'” It's going to be my new go-to line. Susan, thank you for bringing Alice to the blog--and on a day when I was able to get here, too.

I recently was involved in a controversy with AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the national organization for writers and teachers of creative writing. I was chair of the Indigenous Writers Caucus, and a person aiming for the board of the organization and on a powerful committee wrote an article for HuffPo that was full of nasty swipes at almost everyone from every marginalized community, but she spent the most time writing toxic "humor" about Indians (saddling up the horses to ride us down and shoot us with six-guns, ha, ha). She's a powerful person in the lit community, and people were reluctant to take her on, but I was chair last year and she was dissing my peeps. So I did, and my blog posts went kind of viral. I got a lot of good feedback and quite a lot of vitriol, as you might imagine. (Wish to heck I'd had that great phrase I've just learned from Alice!) I thought about taking my email off my website, but that would have felt too much like I was letting the bad guys win, so I left it up. It's never really settled down, and I'm due to go to that national conference next month, so we'll see what happens.

silverlining1 said...

I've been through stuff like this for years. It's a relief to me to read that I'm not alone, that other women go through the same garbage. That makes it easier to brush it off. I got it in school because I was a very late bloomer and because my mother didn't know about the different clothing needs for girls. Slam books were the custom back then. Somehow, I was never allowed to read one until one day when someone goofed and passed one to me. The page with my name on it was filled with awful comments.

I've had problems with adults, both men and women, in my adult life. Things would be going well, I'd be accomplishing stuff, and suddenly, out of the blue, someone would make some miserable comments to me. I had one woman sit me down in the basement of our church where I was helping in the kitchen for an event and say that she needed to explain why she hated me so much. I had a man scream and yell at me at a meeting because I had a good idea that I'd researched. I had a man at work make extremely sexist, nasty comments to and about me in a meeting; they were so bad that he was later reprimanded and forced to send me a written apology and then had to apologize to me personally at the next meeting.

I've had women try to make up stories for my managers to show how awful I was. And finally, at one point, as I was sitting in the office I shared, trying to make sense of all this, I asked my office mate why people did and said these things to me and about me. His answer has resonated with me ever since. He said, "They're just jealous because you're so smart and you do so well that they can't stand it."

Every time someone starts in on me, I try to remember what he said. It gives me courage to ignore what the haters say and go on with my life. He was right. There are people out there who are infuriated by anyone who seems to be doing better than they are, or who has the confidence to ignore their bad advice. I remember one woman in a writing group I was in for a while who kept complaining about all sorts of picky things and was angry because I would have a character ask multiple questions at a time, as in, "Why did you do that? Don't you know that's illegal? What are you going to do about it?". She hated it. I replied that that is how people talk. Listen to the people around you, I suggested. And then I finally dropped out of the group.

I still wince when people start in on me about something. I have a group I'm probably going to rejoin this fall that has a woman in it who has been particularly vicious to me. I'm 'girding my loins' to deal with her. But inside, I'm going to try to keep telling myself that she's just jealous, and that I should take her vitriol as a compliment.

Think it will work??

Thanks so much for this piece, Alice. It takes a lot of courage to deal with people like that. But tell yourself that maybe these people are just jealous because you are coming up with successful books and writing things that they cannot. Good luck!

Anne Gooding/Anne MacKay