Internet haters come in many different flavours, like a particularly sour bag of Skittles.
There’s everything from professional trolling gangs, to bitchy jealous acquaintances to people with far too much time and unresolved trauma. But whatever variety it comes in, if you’re trying to be a creative these days, then you’re going to taste it.
Especially if you’re opinionated. Especially especially if you’re female and not white. (The UN Broadband Commission found that almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence and non white women the most victimised group.)
And, whatever your Dad confusedly tells you, you can’t just leave the internet. We need it to promote our work. Which means that going to the office becomes the digital equivalent of walking past a pub at closing time.
I started writing at 18, which means I’ve had bitchy comments and nasty DMs since a time when I thought Starbucks and unblended foundation was cool.
I wish I could say all the years dulled the sting of trash talk and helped me rise about it like the digital Dali Lama.
It hurt like a bitch, and then I’d get the even worse threat of potential backlash creeping through my head like paralytic nerve gas, choking any interesting thoughts before they could solidify into ideas.
So I looked around to see what everyone else does to cope with trolls.
I admired Clementine Ford’s relentless name-and-publicly-shame strategy; it's executed with an energy that makes the Battle of Stalingrad look lacklustre.
But I don’t have the mental stamina.
Another writer friend of mine responds to all of her critics with a heart emoji “because it really confuses them.” (I know of another who similarly responds entirely in Mean Girls GIFs.)
So I tried the odd sassy heart emoji. It kinda worked; sometimes it shut people down, sometimes it egged them on. But the real problem was that because I had engaged in the fight, weeks later I’d still find myself mentally in it.
I’d think I was fine, but then the stench of the bitchy comments would keep wafting back into my head unexpectedly. Like when you’re driving and get a whiff of the milkshake you spilled on the seat in 2012.
I wanted them out of my head. So I tried the classic “why don’t you just ignore them” approach, from the School of Infuriating Things Your Parents Say.
Which worked if you didn’t care about the person anyway. But it wasn't very useful when people who you like start trash talking you.
The day I joined Twitter, I followed a writer I loved, and they tweeted asking if anyone else wanted to shoot themselves when they read my work?
I instantly deleted Twitter. Then I embarked on a few years of deleting accounts, ignoring emails and generally running away.
And it still didn’t work.
Not only did I not stop replaying painful comments in my head but running sapped any courage I had to write anything in the first place.
So I took the internal stalemate to a friend of mine who’s been an artist and choreographer for almost 30 years. He’s one of those people who’s half human, half yoda. And he listened, paused thoughtfully and then said, “your problem is you’ve let it break the most important rule of creating art. You have to create to please yourself.”
Infuriatingly, he was right.
Whether you’re writing, or cooking, or painting or stealing ornamental teaspoons and making them into musical instruments for hamsters...you have to do it to please yourself.
Your clarity and certainty in your vision is the only thing that matters.
I’d let the haters and the omnipresent fear of “what will they say…” damage that. And now, I was second guessing myself so much I’d lost sight of what I was trying to say.
The upshot was finally I understood what was at stake from listening to haters.
If we let them into our heads, we don’t just destroy our mental health. We also ruin our ability to do our job as artists.
You can’t have complete certainty of your own vision if you’re also considering what everyone else might say.... It’s like running a fabulous shoe store but also dousing your stock in petrol and burning it every night.
And when I realised I couldn’t have both, I had to choose what I cared about more. My vocation, livelihood, and very reason for being? Or pissing off randoms?
Finally, I had a strategy.