About that Essay I wrote about San Francisco being awful….
by Michelle Miller // June 8, 2015 // Categories Blog, Feminism, Women, Writing
Dear cunt, you should die.
That’s probably the best email I got. The one about being glad that career women wait until they are barren so they don’t plague society with their progeny was another highlight. So was the law school blog that debated, for a solid week, my race (Asian, they concluded), my attractiveness level (hot, they decided), and the number of cats I owned (many) before concluding that one of them should figure out who I was because clearly whatever lawyer I ended up with was going to rack up a ton of fees in my inevitable multiple divorces.
This was all in response, of course, to an essay I wrote in 2012 entitled WHY SAN FRANCISCO REALLY IS THAT BAD, which I published, anonymously, on a website of the same URL and which, shortly after publication went viral to reach over a quarter of a million people in more than a hundred countries.
Here’s the thing: I don’t really hate San Francisco.
And I’m sorry to all the people who wrote me (or rather, my dead grandmother, whose name I used to register the site) with long, eloquent missives about how much they totally agreed with the essay and were so glad I wrote it.
Let’s be very clear: I don’t love San Francisco, and I 100% understand the view of the voice in which I wrote the essay, but it was a view, and I wrote it in the same mindset that I used to argue an assigned position in debate class, regardless of whether it aligned with my own, personal opinion. (Yes, I was in debate class. And yes, I loved it. Mock Trial, too. #Owningit).
The essay is on this site, but as a quick overview: it follows a woman’s journey through intense criticism of all the male stereotypes in San Francisco, ending on a clumsy but genuine realization that she, herself, might just be the cause of her own unhappiness, and that her training might have precluded her from finding true happiness because she is so busy box-checking her way into the perfect mate. It’s biting, and it’s bitchy, but it’s also genuine and, I think , gets to an empathic point at the end.
Anyway, I learned a LOT from that essay. Here are a few highlights:
- Few people read to the end, but that doesn’t keep them from making up their minds. The essay was divided into six parts, requiring readers to click through from one section to the next and allowing me to see the drop-off analytics. By section three, over two-thirds of readers had dropped off, but that didn’t keep them from commenting on what a bitch the author was and insiting she was her own problem – the very conclusion which she came to herself, which they would have known had they read to the end. My favorite was one comment-battle that ensued between a man who blasted “the writer” for being un-self-aware, and another commenter (who had read to the end) leaping to the writer’s defense, with a “SHE GETS THERE” comment. This is interesting to me for all sorts of reasons. On the reader side, it certainly seems to indicate a quickness to judge and a habit of reading for the sake of confirming one’s own judgments, rather than really hearing an argument or learning another point of view. From the writer standpoint, it creates a difficult dilemma: do you water everything down and put the conclusion in sentence one, or risk the possibility that you’ll be misunderstood because a reader doesn’t interact with your piece the way you want them to? And whose fault is it, if you are misunderstood?
- Can we have Art on the Internet? If I had had an editor on this essay, I know they would have told me: cut it to 750 words, bring forward the thesis, show readers the conclusion from the start. Which is great, except that it isn’t terribly interesting art, is it? I don’t mean to imply that I did it perfectly, but what I was really aiming for in this essay was to map the journey of a single woman’s unhappiness: I wanted to mirror in form and feeling that process of he’s the problem, he’s the problem, he’s the problem, getting angrier and angrier and more and more bitter until that pop! And the: oh shit, maybe I’m the problem. Had I put the conclusion at the beginning, I’d have necessarily ruined the journey; I’d have crushed the growth of the narrator and the experience of living it with her. I don’t blame people for not seeing that, given that it was on the Internet, where we have become so accustomed to reading short, concise, nonfiction snippets, but it makes me endlessly curious about whether there is a place on the Internet for art that does not fit a formula, and whether we can retrain our brains to imagine the possibility that everything is not what we immediately think that it is.
- Anonymity is Great, but it’s hard to do in Silicon Valley. When I wrote the essay, I was very much starting my writing career and trying to find the subjects and voices that were most interesting, should I ever come public with it. I used a lot of pseudonyms, and categorically recommend it for any aspiring writer: it allowed me to get comfortable with people commenting on my work without having to deal with personal attacks. The problem was that I was in Silicon Valley, lobbing insults against a lot of smart computer-types, many of whom were able to find the email under which I’d registered the site despite it’s supposedly being private, and three people who found and texted my PHONE NUMBER which I’d definitely listed no where. To be fair, all of them thought I was named Hazel (my dead grandmother, under whom I’d registered the site), but it was still a jolt to my sense of internet security.
- Mean in Public, Kind in Private. There were over 500 comments on the site, most of which I approved. I didn’t do the exact math, but I feel comfortable guessing that at least half were negative and mean. This is notable for me because I also got about a hundred emails, none of which were mean, and none of which were short. They were all long, deeply personal, beautifully articulated letters struggling with the issues of understanding love in the modern world, from both men and women, both single and married. This was interesting to me because it made me wonder what drives a reader to put an angry comment out in the open, where everyone can see it, but never say it head-on to the author, while a kind reader, who agrees or simply wants to help, feels sheepish to say it aloud. To me, it suggests that anger really is more about performance, and has very little to do with the author. But also that the writer-reader bond can be so incredibly precious, as I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the kind of immediate and sincere vulnerability as with the readers who wrote to me [Hazel] in private, and I learned such a huge amount from them.
- Mean Works, and it Feels Awful. The essay got, by a factor of five, more reads and response than anything else I have ever posted online. It was also, without question or doubt, the meanest thing I’ve ever done, and it was incredibly easy and fast to put together. It also felt awful. Even if no one knew it was me, even if I read the comments and could see that the people writing the mean ones were not nice people, even with all the sweet and personal notes I got, I generally hated it. I hated having created something that ignited so much anger and negativity. Which is to say that it showed me, in a very clear stroke, how tempting it is – how easy it is, when you want and need attention as a writer, to go dark and go mean and take short-cuts that get views. I made a very clear decision with THE UNDERWRITING not to do that, and it took a lot more effort, but it’s felt a lot better, and I hope, maybe, proves that compassionate satire can be as successful as biting criticism.
Anyway: now that it’s out in the open that I’m behind it, I felt like I should clarify my design and intent. The piece no longer feels like mine: I think the comments have morphed it into a much bigger, richer, reflection on the state of relationships and gender dynamics in the Bay Area, and in that sense it does feel, to me, like what Art on the Internet could look like: a living, evolving, communal debate over a subject which, because its creator remains anonymous and its distribution unaffiliated with any editorial stance, has no guide and therefore evolves into a purer reflection of the conflicted subject it represents. Then again, maybe it’s just a bitchy, snarky essay and I, a hot Asian female with a lot of cats who needs a good divorce attorney. xx