After twenty-five years of journalism and writing on the Internet, you’d think Lance Burson would be used to receiving hate mail. He’s not.
On January 1, 2015, I’ll enter my tenth year of freelance writing for the internet, and my twenty-fifth year as a journalist, so when relay that one of the hardest parts of my day is opening my email and social media accounts, then you’re reading somewhat of an expert on criticism.
In 1990, after two years of working for free as an intern and student reporter, I started my first paid job in radio. It was a small National Public Radio station in the middle of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. As I settled into a cubicle, my news director told me “thicken your skin, kid, you’re going to take a lot of crap”. I shrugged and thought “who cares about me delivering the news?” A few days later, I showed up to work with head cold, the girl I was dating was mad at me, and I proceeded into a bad morning. I mispronounced two names in the copy and over-emphasized the political party of one of the politicians involved in some burgeoning scandal. The phone rang to the station. I answered and heard a middle-aged man yell, “you listen here you little pipsqueak, commie turd, we don’t care for your views, just tell us the news and get the names right!”. I responded, “yes, sir” and buried my pounding head in my hands.
A quarter century later, this is called Tuesday.
Before the internet, email, social media, and smart phones, there were land lines and handwritten letters. Being a working media member in the Deep South, I received a lot of crap from people who just wanted to hear what they wanted to hear and nothing more. Facts didn’t matter and contrarian opinions were damned. I wish I could say I’ve gotten used to it, but that would be a lie.
Ten years ago, I started writing online during the same time my first marriage crumbled. I was getting crap at home and work. Constant criticism isn’t healthy or natural, regardless if someone brings it on themselves. I found myself in a therapist’s office asking “why me?”. Her response was “because you want it.” It took me years to figure out what she meant. There’s a need for feedback, good and bad, when you’re a writer. How you deal it reveals your personal character and professional mettle for the job.
Encouragement, kindness, support, and friendship rarely align with the truth. That would make the world a perfect place. There’s something inside every scribe that would rather be alone with their principles than the life of the party without them. One day, my headstone will reflect this, Lance Burson, here he lies, cold with his conscience.
The internet has made interaction between writer and reader more contentious than ever. During my time working in radio and television, I would have a few people contact me. Writing on the web, those people can be anonymous, fast, abundant and brutal without ramification. This is hate mail. Twitter and Facebook attach names and avatars to your critics. It’s easy to say “ignore the haters” and “don’t feed the trolls” but words mean something, even when they’re delivered by some angry typist with the profile picture of a hamburger carrying the handle @nickelbackrules. My fellow writers will encourage me and say “you’re getting a reaction, that’s all that matters”, like I’m a professional wrestler or reality show cast member. I don’t believe this. There should be more accountability and meaningful dialogue.
I’ve noticed that my hate mail has made me more appreciative, almost dependent, on the love and care of my wife and three daughters at home. There are times when I just want them to say something nice, even if they don’t mean it, and when they do, I treasure a lot more than I used to. I also pay attention to how my friends, acquaintances and family interact with me.
Last year, during my 25th high school class reunion, several classmates expressed their views on my writing. I went to school and currently live just outside Atlanta, Georgia, a politically blood red area that produces a lot of social media traffic against anything that isn’t conservative. A couple of people approached me and told me they appreciated my stances and talent but more came up and started conservations with “what the hell’s the matter with you?” or “your parents must shake their head at your commie butt!” I smiled through it all, something I wouldn’t done ten years ago, and blogged about it later like a true writer. I don’t know if that’s compartmentalization or straight up insanity but I’ve gained friends since, so that must be a good thing.
Being a husband, father, son, friend, and writer are all full-time jobs. Opening my email and social media accounts everyday are part of the work for each gig. I think I’ve learned a lot by absorbing the blows of internet fighting because writing my next thing still makes me happy and ready to fight another day.
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Photo: FLickr/Terry Johnston