#29: On being a “public figure”

Feedback, shit-talk, and critique

Good morning,

Today is my monthly column, Dear Baby, in which I answer five reader questions. Technically it’s only for paying subscribers of Maybe Baby, but today I’m experimenting with sending one of the five Q&As to my free subscribers so you still get a little something on the last Sunday of the month. I actually write a full essay for each one, so it’s not even that little!

Thanks for reading and love to your pets,

On being a public figure

“Did you have any serious hesitations about becoming a public figure? I'm curious if you ever had a conscious check-in with yourself about whether putting yourself and your thoughts out there was something you wanted and were comfortable with, and if so, what that dialogue was like.”

I didn’t hesitate before I became a semi-public figure, probably because I didn’t exactly set out to do that, but I definitely hesitate now. Especially since striking out on my own and learning how it feels to endure the burden of public critique alone. I think some people are more suited for it. Their skin is thicker, less porous, or they’re energized by conflict. I’m not like that at all. The sensitivity inherent to my work is double-edged.

There’s this pervasive belief that if you enjoy the perks of an audience, you must endure listening to strangers talk shit about you—that this is part of the exchange: clout for shit-talk. It’s certainly been true in my experience. And even though what I’ve received has been mild compared to others, sometimes it weighs so heavy it doesn’t feel worth it. Most pressingly, it makes me pessimistic about my ability to connect with others, which is unmooring to me as a writer, if not totally inhibitive. Without that belief, everything feels pointless. It’s a slippery slope to depression. I know there’s more to public figurehood than critique, but it’s the only part I seriously struggle with.

The other day, Avi and I were walking past a cafe in Manhattan when he asked me if I heard that. “Heard what?” I asked. “Those girls,” he said, “they were talking about you.” He hadn’t heard the exact words, only the tone, which was critical, and a snippet: “I want to give that girl…” He missed the rest. At first I wondered what they said—checked my black pants and navy sweater, imagined how I looked to someone who didn’t know me or didn’t like the look of me. I want to give that girl a piece of my mind! I want to give that girl a haircut. I want to give that girl a hug? A moment later I felt something else: a flood of relief that I’d never know. That I wouldn’t spend even one minute considering whether she’d been right or rude, building a defense against a stranger, fighting off an aimless fog of animus about something so fleeting. I wouldn’t give it any energy at all.

This is what having a following has taught me: You’re not supposed to hear people talk shit about you. As my mom would say, it’s bad for your spirit. Shit-talk is meant to stay between a small group of people who are bored and feel things and want to connect through the age-old bonding agent that is gossip. I’m not anti-gossip. I love gossip! I am starved for it in quarantine! But gossip is never really about the subject of the gossip, it’s about the people doing it. Through it they are seeking to connect through shared emotions or values. They are, as anthropologist David Sloan Wilson would call it, “defining group membership.” Obviously gossip has its limits. When it becomes an organizing principle of a friendship or community or point of view, it tends to erode rather than support our ability to organize. It can make people cruel and dispassionate. But I do think a lot of gossip is just a form of catharsis. An opportunity for self-reflection. A way of metabolizing social mores and establishing our places within them. What it isn’t is legitimate critical feedback, and this distinction is important to me, because online it’s often lost.

Sometimes it’s the words themselves that distinguish shit-talk from critique, but sometimes it’s just the tone, context, delivery method, or relationship between the speaker and the subject. Despite how much feedback is given online all the time about everything and everyone, I think a fairly small percentage of it is genuine critique, and the rest is just shit-talk. Blatant shit-talk or shit-talk presented as concern or gossip dressed up as moral policing. And like I said, gossip has its purpose, especially privately, but I don’t think that purpose is to make its subject improve. And online, in the form of negative comments, even less so. This is where I so often get it wrong.

I read: “Yikes. Quality starting to dwindle. And you want people to pay for this?”—a recent Maybe Baby comment from someone with no face and no name—and I feel as if it were coming from a long-time editor. It doesn’t matter that I understand intellectually that I shouldn’t, that I don’t know this person’s story or what’s going on with them today, or that a lot of people would disagree. It matters that it confirms my worst fears as a self-employed writer: I am only as good as my most recent essay; I will inevitably disappoint people; I am not worth anyone’s time or money; I am not good enough. I think the person who left that comment knew it would cut deep, and that was part of its impetus. Actually, they deleted it fairly quickly. Stupidly, I will never forget it.

This is what I mean when I say I’m not sure I’m cut out for being a public figure. I’m too receptive, too ready to absorb, too willing to consider whether someone who simply sees things differently or wants to hurt me actually knows the truth about me, and that I in turn am blind to myself, or have been wrong all along. The first lesson I learned about critical feedback as a kid was that you’re not going to agree with it at first, and that’s why it’s worth considering. But to apply this approach to shit-talk—often exaggerated for effect or emotional release—is to accelerate toward the event horizon of self-destruction. Online, where it’s increasingly difficult to parse the difference between gossip, critique, trolling, posturing, and cruelty, the stakes are impossible. You’re either improving or annihilating yourself. And until you’ve toed that line, you don’t really understand how it feels. I know that because I remember living more privately and thinking people were too sensitive. But I was underestimating the strong social imperative humans experience to belong.

This was a long and specific answer to a broad question. But it’s a persistent topic in therapy for me and I still haven’t figured it out. I don’t mind opening up to people I don’t know—at least not for the obvious reasons people might shy away, like privacy or shame. What I struggle with is the medium of the internet, whereby publishing your work means enduring a steady stream of critical feedback from strangers with no faces and no names, bad days, bad moods, bad takes and all. It’s in conflict with my personality, which is open to new ideas and self-critical as a rule, and also my driving force, which is to share, understand, and connect. To harden myself would be to lose something, too.

I wouldn’t trade my job as a result of this conflict—I’ve never been so grateful for anything as I am for the chance to write like this, and the good parts are gratifying beyond any work I’ve ever done. (They can also be fun: I’ve written before about the more material perks.) But it undoubtedly impacts my career decisions and mental health in ways I haven’t fully grasped yet, and undoubtedly makes me shy away from pursuing a larger audience.

Here are the other four questions I answered this week:

  1. What’s your opinion on different political leanings in relationships? Can it work?

  2. I’ve been writing my whole life but lately I just cannot make myself sit down and write because I know it won’t be good enough. Please send help?

  3. Why do you think nuance doesn’t translate well in online writing? Is its absence negatively affecting a generation of young readers?

  4. What do you love the most and hate the most about living in New York City? If you had to live somewhere else, what would you choose?

If you’d like to read my answers/add comments, subscribe here then head to my Substack. You’ll unlock all my past Dear Baby issues as well as all my Tuesday podcasts. And if you’d like to ask a question, here’s the form to do it.

p.s. since free-only newsletters don’t show up on my Substack page, there’s no comments section. I’m sorry! I hope that changes one day. For now feel free to reply directly with thoughts/questions.

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be donated to Open Path Collective, a nationwide non-profit network dedicated to providing affordable therapy to those in need.