All that is necessary for the survival of the fittest

is an interest in life, good, bad or peculiar--Grace Paley

Juliet Waters

Juliet Waters
Montreal, Canada
August 01
Montreal based writer, book critic, single mom. Currently working on a book about a year learning computer programming. Visit me, or


Editor’s Pick
JULY 13, 2009 8:44AM

Writing Rage

Rate: 48 Flag


One snowy evening in Chicago, Davy Rothbart found this note on his windshield.  It wasn't intended for him. He didn't know Mario or Amber, but something about the vulnerable mix of paranoia and desperation struck a chord with him and his friends.  And so this note became the original artifact that inspired FOUND magazine, an ongoing anthology of found art and writing. 

It's always a vicarious thrill to come upon evidence of other people's raw inappropriate rage. But who hasn't written a note like this?  Maybe our notes were a little more articulate, maybe that undermining "p.s. page me" was just a painfully obvious subtext.  But is there anyone out there who has never experienced the state and  consequences of writing rage?

In recent weeks the writers  Alice Hoffman  and Ayelet Waldman have had to live with the consequences of tweeting rage.  For  Waldman, a mom-oirist who specializes in emotional honesty, Twitter can be a great tool to keep her readers constantly at her knee.  Maybe it wasn't such a great thing to have on hand when she was pissed at what The New Yorker had to say about her latest book.  A couple of weeks ago Chris Anderson didn't so much blog his rage as artlessly project it onto his critic Malcolm Gladwell in his blog "Dear Malcolm: Why So Threatened?" In the olden days, in the time it took to write and mail a letter to respond to a critic, a writer might have a change of heart.  These days with every writer hooked up to an instant publication portal this war of words seems  only the beginning.

The joke-is-really-on-us tragedy of writing rage is that writing is usually   something we depend on to give us  emotional distance.  Studies that show how writing helps us get a grip on our most intense emotions are a dime a dozen.  Writing, or so the latest science story goes, guards us against the primitive urges of the amygdala.  Writing engages  our ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that actually sits behind our forehead at eye level, and helps us see these emotions from a distance.  So regular journal writing , ostensibly, helps us get a grip on our most painful emotions.

Except when it doesn't. Except when the amygdala seems to sneak in to some other section of our brain and convince us that all those emotional distancing skills we've been building over the years would be put to best use by telling someone else how it really is. Because, you see, we're writers. And that enables us to see and explain the situation clearly to the person who hurt or disappointed us. That critic/ex-boyfriend/family member who didn't treat us with the respect we deserve doesn't have our emotional distancing skills.  Which is why  a long articulate letter explaining all their various flaws and sins  is  just what they need.  That, or a simple tweet with a perfectly chosen word, like twat. Yes, that will put the whole situation to rest!

Of course writing out of anger isn't always wrong.  Anger is and should be a great motivator for writing.  We wouldn't want to keep all our angry written thoughts private, not when those thoughts are against governments who torture, or even airlines who break our guitar

Would we really want to live in a world free of writing rage?

So there are two questions that come to mind. First what do we do if writing rage has become a chronic problem?   And second do we have to be so damn gleeful or offended when we come across evidence of it in others?

If writing rage is a persistent problem in your life you might want to consider  fighting  writing with writing. 

I remember, years back, going through a bad break up when e-mail was in its infancy.  What I wouldn't give to go back in time and take back a few of my more pathetic midnight cybermissives. Fortunately the next time I had my heart broken I was better prepared.  At the time I was the book critic at a  Canadian fashion magazine, and had been sent an advance copy of a book called.  Bittergirl: Getting Over Getting Dumped. In it, I found a handy little contract which I credit with a smooth and dignified break up.  (I've never been much of a impulse dialer, but I did find it helpful to cross out "call" and write in "e-mail".)



So if writing rage is becoming a chronic problem in your life, it may be worth adapting this contract to serve your own needs.  Make a list of hot button topics and people you won't write about for a month.  If you know that a trigger event is coming up, like a break up or a book launch, get your contract out and ready.

Update your contract regularly so that you can make room in your life  for the subjects you really care about.  And if you don't know what those subjects are, consider the possibility that this is part of the problem.  Maybe you're using rage instead of actual passion as a motivator? 

At the same time, with all the new publication technology available to us, and with writing increasingly replacing conversation as the predominant mode of communication, recognize that writing rage is going to be a fact of life for a long time.

Develop the ability to distance yourself from other people's writing rage, ideally in a compassionate way.  Learn to ignore it or diffuse it.  And learn even to appreciate it. 

Trolls are one thing.  But should it be so unusual for writers to respond to their critics? 

It isn't in other countries.  In Britain book sections are filled with ranty reviews and ranty replies to those reviews.  Books editors actively seek the reviewer who is likely to write the most negative review.  And writers are expected to respond passionately.  Nobody expects reviews to sell books.  They expect the debate to sell the book. And, frankly, I find those sections a lot more fun to read than our own disappearing books sections full of faux neutral reviews, and the silent screams of repressed replies. 

Writing rage is a hazard of the blogging age, but it's also a gift.  Sometimes if everybody gets angry enough it can make sure a story doesn't get buried. Sometimes it targets and hounds the politicians who really deserve it.   Emotional distance in the media has too often atrophied into political passivity. 

Of course we want to use writing to get emotional distance.  But writing should not make us emotionally rigid.  In the end writing rage usually just means you care too much, and when you become too deeply ashamed of caring, that's when you're really in trouble.


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your wisdom abounds.
or maybe I'm just drama adverse.
Dear Amber,

I fucking hate people who leave out the apostrophe in "why's."

Brian, I tend to be the same, but drama will sneak up on you if you don't watch out.

Mario fuck you i dont use punctuation its my fucking aesthetic o.k. p.s. pm me later
I am so glad you pointed this out to me, it explains a lot. Like why so many journalist are constipated.
"So ... writing , ostensibly, helps us get a grip on our most painful emotions. Except when it doesn't."

May I suggest Mein Kampf as the ultimate exemplar?
It would seem a pudding wrestling match is a good alternative...or not.

Thoughtful posting, and the first time I've seen this analyzed.
BloggerX is a shitface censoring meangirl and I hate her guts so now I'm just gonna go check new comments on her blog and tell her so kthxbai...
I love this new freedom to let it all hang out.

T.S. That wasn't actually my point. But I do think that one of the hazards of journalism is that writing a lot can actually numb you emotionally, especially if you're not in a situation that's going to challenge you to mix it up. This is why too may journalists become cynics or hacks.

Tom. Good point. I'm sure Hitler thought he had a lot of emotional control. It's interesting how many muderers are hypergraphics. The most famous is Charles Whitman, one of the first school shooters. He wrote non-stop. And it's really sad to read, because it's clear in his writing that he knew he had a brain tumour....But this was 1940 so they had to wait for the autopsy.

Thanks Buffy and Cartouche.

And Verbal. Yes I do occasionally follow the exploits of comments vs. comments. I think the pudding break has done everyone some good.
I'm with you on that, Knightwriter.

This post is so good! I hate it when a great post lands on the cover and then sits around with 10 or 11 ratings ... wtf???

I loved it and for the record, I think Mario is a real dickhead.
Juliet- I enjoy your writing brain posts so so much. I hope you do more of these.
I'm with Juli -- fascinating topic. Hope this is the first in a series.
Fantastically written post. Very articulate.

Whoo boy, Juliet, talk about throwing a hot potato in my lap!
Fascinating post, Juliet.

I learned long ago not to write and send or publish when I'm angry. I'm a big fan of first raging in Word, and then reading it again an hour or two or 24 later, depending on how mad I was when I wrote in the first place. Then I trash it and start all over again. This toned down message or piece is always saner. There's nothing worse than letting my pissiness fly off into the world and then regretting it. There are no do-overs on the Internet.
Great advice! Well written! I told my ex I was going to write about him and he was thrilled. He told me he hopes I make beaucoup money so he doesn't have to pay me any longer and wished me much luck.

When the book comes out, I'll announce it here first! LOL
Hoooey, this looks like the tip of a fairly large iceberg. Good subject – great post.

I’m kinda’ on the fence about the merits of writing rage you mention. I hear what you’re saying on that, and while true, I’m still pretty mistrustful when loud or powerful negative (and increasingly simple) voices hog the ‘message’ on complex issues. But you’re right, there’s good and bad there.
My motto is Yah Can't Tell Nobody Nothin' ... All you do is annoy them and frustrate yourself...
I've never understood this idea that you can 'write it all out'. Writing it all out is, for me, another form of dwelling on it. Going on for sentences, paragraphs and pages about how hurt and angry I am just tends to make my hurt and anger feel more solidified, more justified. It I REALLY want to get over my anger, then I put it aside and write about what my role in the situation is, or what I can do to resolve the situation without escalating it. This is infinitely less fun, but for me, necessary, as writing about my rage only fuels it.
1IM, Gwendolyn, and MAWB thanks for the kind words.

Laurel and Juli, That's the plan for now, to focus on this subject. In part because I prefer the adsense ads. Nothing against doggy incontinence, but I got depressed for my poor dog every time I read a comment on my last post.

Umbrella and Maria: I agree with you guys that more often than not you should write it out and destroy, or at least revise it. But every once in while, the time is right to let somebody have it. But that time doesn't come around too often, for me.

Emma. I thought of us both today over at this post. You might be able to figure out why from my comment.

David. For the most part I don't support unbridled writing rage. I don't respond to trolls, and I try to stay away from posts that annoy me. That said, maybe it's just me, but there's a piousness that has crept into journalism in the last decade or so, in particular in the book review world that I think can do almost as much harm as the rantyness. I think writers have to stay flexible, and be willing to take emotional risks in their writing. Otherwise something dry seeps in.

Myriad. Wise words.
Indeed, writing and emailing provides a certain level of anonymity and the words can become harsher. Likewise, tonal inflection is not there, nor the ability to clarify mid stream in the event the wording leads to misinterpretation.

Would I were better at curbing that instinct than I am.... Although I do think I am improving.
Sandra. That's an interesting question. Generally psychologists seem to say that doing this will give you distance. But just as there are studies that argue journal writing actually makes you more depressed, there are probably studies that show that writing rage makes you angrier.

From my experience, there are times when I prefer to defuse my rage and times when the best thing actually is to let it expand, boil over and evaporate.

Looking at my part in the conflict, if there is a conflict, is obviously important. But sometimes there's not actually a conflict. For instance when someone is trying to bully me, or someone else, I don't consider that a "conflict." I consider that one person trying to dominate another. I'm not saying that there aren't more effective ways than rage to deal with a bully over the long run. But if I think my skill with words will force someone to back off, I don't think twice, I'll use it. Most people, however, are not bullies. They're just people with strong opinions. And if suddenly I'm seeing "bullies" everywhere, then the problem isn't "bullies". It's me.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that if one only has one tactic in one's tool box for dealing with anger, then what one is trying to do is control anger. Rather than recognize it as a fact of being human and learn how to live with it as authentically, and purposefully as possible.
I write many, many things that I never publish or hit "send" on. While doing so does dissipate some of my anger or disappointment or sense of injustice, it doesn't bring me true resolution. For that, I need to say my piece as politely as possible.

And like you Juliet, I despise bullies and those who seek to control others but fortunately, I haven't met many at OS. Strong opinions based on analysis and facts are my stock in trade. It just bothers me how many people pay lip service to freedom of opinion but when faced with one they don't like , try to shut it down by shaming and blaming. It hasn't worked on me yet and never will.
Oh, and thanks for directing me to annette's post. It was wonderful.
Someone once shared something I had written privately with someone who shouldn't have seen it. The memory of that is devastating. It still makes me sick to my stomach. And I agree with you completely about "anger management" in e-mails. We were slow to learn that "intent" and "tone" was not as easy to convey and made for more difficulties than we anticipated. It's always much easier to see it from the outside than it is to overcome the lessons we learned. Some of them smarted. Highly rated.
He he, when I worked the graveyard shift at the truck stop we use to get very very bored late at night. Every now and then this car would be parked around back. We never saw the driver or knew why they were leaving it at the station but we decided to have a little fun so we wrote out a note, "I know who you are and I know what you are doing, and who you are doing it with."

A couple of weeks later I worked the day shift and saw the driver of the car. They were meeting a bus from a small school a few miles down the road.
This was great writing, great links, and hilarious comments. Thanks.
i think it's key here to make a distinction between writing and publishing. go to town and write the most horrible things you feel like airing in your drafts. it can be useful.

but for the love of god, why would you run out immediately and get your friends and neighbors involved? we all have dirty laundry. we can clean it up before we invite people to come look at it.
A topic that interests me . . . great analysis, great writing.
"It's interesting how many muderers are hypergraphics."

Us murderers, too -- how did you know about my secret life? ;-)
Really enjoyed this and the comment thread... all those (um, drunken) phone conversations we once had over romance drama our kids are now having by texts... and when I swipe my daughter's cell phone, they are something to behold!
Interesting questions and observations. It's amazing when we consider how new much of this all is--in a way, we're still working our way through how and what we put out on-line.

I constantly self narrate ( I imagine most people who write do this) so if I read something that ticks me off or I have a rant--I take a walk and narrate it in my head, probing my argument/ narrative for logical inconsistencies and weaknesses. Essentially I "write rage" in my head, I let my lizard brain internally compose the first draft. By the time I get around to putting pen to paper or finger to keys, I normally don't feel the need to rage on the page, so to speak.
I see your point that anger can be useful, but it should be a controlled anger--our lizard brains should not be in control. Too often on-line I see a lot of anger and too little thinking. I'm not sure we can call that writing.
Juliet, this is a really great, thoughtful essay! I loved it and it gave me a lot of food for thought as well as making me laugh. I sent the link for it to all my writer friends. It is in fact all too tempting to try to set people straight and you really nail how being a good writer makes it just that much easier and seductive.
I loved it - every word. Thank you Juliet. My damn amygdala has gotten the best of me more times than I care to remember. Deep breathing, counting to ten - you need a moment of clarity to pull those off and talk yourself down. And unfortunately the moment of clarity comes a little too late sometimes. Getting older (and wiser?) seems to help, but there's no fun in that.
"Books editors actively seek the reviewer who is likely to write the most negative review. And writers are expected to respond passionately. Nobody expects reviews to sell books. They expect the debate to sell the book. And, frankly, I find those sections a lot more fun to read..."

Very thoughtful post. My rage writing is usually short and "sweet".

Fuck you.

Or, if I'm really pissed, Fuck YOU, you fucking FUCKER!

That's about it. I always feel much better.

ps I didn't really mean fuck YOU. Just the collective YOU. Oh well...
Just got back from the FOUND website. Great stuff! Had to tear myself away...supposed to be packing for vacation.

My list:

wash sheets
water plants
Scott - Key1
turn on hose to water garden!
clean tub
pick garden
trash out!
call and schedule mri

Laughing here. I will NEVER get this all done today!
Gracie Lou. Thanks for reminding me what a great site it is. There's the most beautiful wedding picture today that somebody just found in the trash. I'm going to go put FOUND on my toolbar right now. It's such an amazing reminder to keep your eyes peeled. Have a great vacation, fuck!
Great post. SaoKay posted it on Facebook and so will I for my friends who like good writers. Peace, Robin
I so enjoy your smooth and intelligent writing! Can't wait to read your next essay. I'm happy to have discovered your voice, and looking forward to revisiting it as you explore new topics.

Rage and passion may be sides of the same coin: My favorite billboard ad of all time was for the Broadway musical 'Annie,' back in the '80's, "I hated it! -- Rex Reed" In simple black and white, ten feet tall.

I'd much rather see harsh, impulsive expression in print -- the cultural cat-calling the British have a heart for in print as well as verbally in the house of Lords -- than the physical rage of violence, especially from women, now an American trait of passion that creates news headlines a la Steve McNair.

That said, listening to the drone this morning of her appearance in front of the committee, a part of me would be overjoyed to see Judge Sotomayor step up and slap a few senators silly ... and that's why we love political cartooning!
As a manager I spent a disproportionate amount of my time mediating warring parties and getting them to stop sending vituperative email to each other, rather than walking to a work station or calling on the phone to solve a problem. It is far too easy to send a hateful email than talk face to face. Rated