As a writer, or a blogger, you hope your work will resonate with an audience. Whether it’s an audience of family and friends, or maybe a stranger or two, you hope what you say will have meaning. Particularly when you write for the love of it and make no income from it. Particularly when you write from the heart.
In March this year, during the first round of hate on the Safe Schools project that saw the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, throw LGBT youth under the bus to appease his right wing party members I wrote a blog called An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia.
In the blog I addressed bullying. I addressed (from my own experiences) what it can be like for a child growing up being bullied and tormented daily, without respite, for being different. For me I addressed the realities – both short and long term – of being gay in a society that marks you as a freak or a pervert. I wrote of my own experiences.
I assumed maybe one or two people would read the blog. Maybe someone I knew might share it. But I never expected what happened next.
The blog post took on a life of its own. I shared it twice on Twitter and once on Facebook. That was it. Within the hour I assumed my blog was broken. There were comments flying in left and right and the views were skyrocketing faster than I’d ever seen before. There were PM’s coming to me from complete strangers on Facebook, emails and DM’s. It was insane.
Still I assumed it would die down. That maybe it might break the mysterious 100 reads mark which would be only the second time one of my posts had achieved that elusive mark.
And then the media got involved. Journalists and columnists with much greater follower numbers than mine began to retweet it. They sent the blog post far and wide and I watched the backend of my blog hit 200 reads, rapidly followed by 300, 400. It was astonishing to me.
I went to make a coffee after it hit 400 reads. I was excited, feeling a bit exposed given how honest I’d been. When I got back the post had jumped to over 800 reads in just a few minutes. When the post crossed the 1,000 reads mark a few minutes after that I began to wonder what the hell was going on.
By the time things began to settle down there were over 100 comments on the blog. People reaching out with their own stories of pain, of bullying, of a life lived waiting for the echoes to stop. It was heart-wrenching.
I made it my goal to read and reply to every message. These people, complete strangers had reached out to me across the internet void, not just from Australian but from the UK, the USA, Canada.
People across the world; all of us united in a pain we couldn’t seem to shake. No matter how hard we tried. I read those comments, and I replied to each one. Trying to share a sense of community; that we were not alone, despite the age and distance. That all of us had survived even if we were somewhat broken or slightly cracked from the experience.
When the blog post hit 10,000 reads I shut the computer down. There was such a sense of raw exposure. All I wanted to do was hide. It took a week, all-in-all, for the blog post to calm itself down. At the end of that time over 100,000 people from all over the world had read that post.
I wrote it on a Saturday. On Monday, as I was heading into work I got an email from a journalist wanting to interview me about it. I had other emails from other journalists wanting to run the blog post, with a link to the original on their news sites. I declined them all. At the time the last thing I wanted was to be the face of the blog post.
I walked into work that Monday morning and sat down at my desk and it took only a moment to realise the two ladies sitting opposite me were talking about my blog post. I found out it was being shared in a group for former members of a US University where one of them had studied. The other had received it on Facebook, from a friend.
Another coworker, who was walking past, asked them if they were talking about the letter that was circulating on Facebook, about the bullied gay kid. They said they were. Apparently that coworker’s mother had sent the link via email to everyone in her address book.
I sat and I listened and when they asked me I had read it I admitted I had. I also admitted I’d written it.
After that, I didn’t write in here for a long time. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I made myself invisible, or hid in the laundry basket, so to speak. I’m not a fan of the spotlight. I’m a fan of the shadows. Of writing in the background and letting others be the star. When that post went viral however it changed not only my view of the world, but also in a way, the content of this blog.
I’m not new to the social media world. I’ve always loved the sense of instant connection and I’ve met some truly remarkable, educated and fabulous people. But I’m aware it has a muddy, dark side. Bored bullies with nothing to do but troll and be an arse. When I went public with my letter I didn’t worry about trolls. They weren’t on my radar nor I on theirs.
When the post went viral – or at least as viral as I’ve come close to – I braced myself for the onslaught. And you know what? It didn’t happen. There were a few people I blocked and didn’t engage with on twitter and two comments on my blog I deleted. But for the most part the blog brought a large sense of community with it.
There was a section in the post where I discussed the first time I was called a pansy. That caught the attention of the trolls. Mind you they hadn’t read it probably just saw the age of five mentioned and started calling me a liar. There was another section about the day I left school, halfway through Year 11 and that got me called a liar too. But for all the reads, the shares, and the exposure the story got, I had maybe 10 people try and start something. The rest were either supportive or sharing their own pain.
The pain that emanated through those comments and messages scared me. I don’t like emotion. I try to live without it. Emotions can burn if you give them free reign. It’s one of the reasons my writing is flat. As soon as a character hits a negative emotion I dance over it and move onto something happier.
But connecting to the emotions under the surface, as I did in that post, I’ve noticed something happen.
While none of my blog posts have generated the reads of that one written on a Saturday afternoon in March the posts that have been written have been richer. And the audience more engaged.
I’ve never seen the amount of comments or reads again but a strange thing happened. I started attracting more followers to the blog, more likes, more shares. While I write now almost exclusively on policy/politics, equality and writing, my audience has become much more diverse.
When a post goes viral at a news site I’m sure there is champagne popped and cheers; backslapping and maybe even a small plastic trophy. But when a post runs away from you and you’re a writer like I am, an amateur with a small blog who writes ‘stuff’, it can be a terrifying experience.
From that experience however, I’ve learned to trust my voice. To trust that all experiences, good or bad, are leading somewhere. It may not be completely noticeable to begin with, it may not be something that happens until many years down the track. But eventually there is a pay off to every experience.
For me the pay off of An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia was the knowledge that emotions aren’t necessarily as bad as I may have feared. Writing a blog post, writing a novel or short story, or a film script, you need to use the emotional strengths and experiences you have.
My open letter tapped the darkest, most painful, parts of my past. It exposed to the light a large amount of the darkness I carried in my heart day-to-day. But the flip side of that is the writing I do now, mostly on my novel ideas, is richer for the experience.