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.