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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

They trickle in slowly. First there is one, then two, then three, and before you know it there are 49. Forty-nine comments awaiting you online, ready to praise you for a job well done, challenge your perspective or tear you down for writing drivel.

As a writer, that’s the price you pay for being published. You put yourself out there in the hopes that the words you so meticulously crafted will resonate with someone, will make someone smile or cry or just feel understood.

Sometimes, your words stir something in people that they feel the need to comment on what you wrote. In this highly digitalized world, it’s easy to do so. Anyone can go online and in a few easy steps create an account, which then allows them to comment on an article. On some websites, comments are moderated, which means debate is allowed but racist, sexist and derogatory comments are removed. But on other sites, it can be a free-for-all. With no gatekeeper, people are free to say whatever they want. It’s never okay to be mean, but the digital world makes it easier. We can be anonymous online and this offers a platform to voice our disagreement to pretty much anything without repercussions. We write what we want behind the comfort of a nickname and then just like that – disappear! In contrast, comments in print (or as they are typically called “Letters to the Editor”) are screened by an editor and not every letter gets printed. Also, real names are used.

Writers are often warned to (1) never read the comments on their work, and (2) if they do, most definitely do not engage. I usually break rule No. 1 but never rule No. 2.

The first time my work was published to a larger audience, I waited a few days before clicking the comments section online. When I did finally read them, I was intrigued. I’d written about what it was like being married to a person from a different cultural background than mine. My words were lauded by some and criticized by others. Strangers who didn’t know anything about me were making assumptions about who I was as a person based on 856 words. I also wondered if everyone who commented on the article actually read the article in its entirety, or if they just went by the attention-grabbing headline (not written by me) and blurb.

An editor advised me to take the comments in stride. My husband added, you can’t please everyone. Never have truer words been spoken.

The best comments, of course, are the kudos for writing a great piece. “Such a sweet and generous and open-minded way of thinking and living. Made me smile and nearly cry at the same time. Just heartwarming,” and “I’m salivating just thinking about your descriptions – the Indian, the Italian, the baking – and the respect.” Such comments make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because someone understood exactly what I was trying to say.

Just as there will be people who like what you have to say, there will be those who disagree because they see things differently. “It seems that Ms. Chiavalon is overthinking this,” and “Such negativity over something that should be viewed as enriching ...” That’s okay, too, because not everyone shares the same perspective. My outlook in life is filtered by my own individual life experiences. That’s the hallmark of first-person essays; they spotlight one person’s perspective on a situation in life. Cumulatively, they showcase different peoples’ perspectives across many different situations in life.

A “good piece” (and again, this is subjective) sparks dialogue. Disagreement and healthy debate are perfectly acceptable as part of that dialogue. It’s what allows us to grow as individuals; when we are open to listening without necessarily agreeing.

And yet there are people who have only one goal in mind – to attack. Attack the writing. Attack the writer. Attack the writer’s character. Sometimes they even attack the other commenters. It is easy to spot these people. Their comments are the ones where you know nothing said in response will make a difference. There’s no room for healthy debate. “This article is outrageous. How about your husband is not Italian, and you are not Indian; you are both Canadian and not a single mention of that in the article. What a joke.” Perhaps instead of mentioning that I made creme brûlée for my husband, I should have mentioned that I made him Nanaimo bars (which I have) so I could sound more “Canadian.”

There are comments that are slightly patronizing. “… She’s not a teenager who needs to figure out how to become more independent. A grown woman who can decide with her husband what they are going to cook and eat without writing to The Globe about it like it was some existential problem.” Actually, this is not an existential problem, the essay is just another first-person perspective being put out there.

And then there are comments that even have me stumped. “One thing I know is that the author is not Canadian, and likely doesn’t live in Canada.” Umm … I do live in Canada, and it said where at the end of the piece.

The interesting thing is, online comments say a lot more about the person commenting than it does about the article being commented on. So, to all the writers, the musicians, the actors, the dancers, the painters, the cooks, the video-game creators and so on, to anyone who dreams of putting themselves out there but is scared of the reaction that may swiftly follow: Be brave and share yourself and your creations with the world. Pay no attention to the “comment section.” At the end of the day, a comment is just another person’s opinion of you, which doesn’t really matter.

With that being said, cue the comments ...

Wendy Chiavalon lives in Ajax, Ont.

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