I got a message this morning from Lynn, she described herself as my oldest reader, a reader of the blog before Maria and I got married. "I joined Facebook so I could post on your site," she wrote, "and you immediately threw me off for unwanted advice. Probably a good thing as it is hard not do do."
Lynn write that she liked my blog better when it was not connected to Facebook. I have never allowed comments on the blog itself, it is a monologue for me, the account of my life, and I didn't care to spend much of my life arguing about it or explaining it and fending off advice and information that I did not ask for or want. Facebook has been very good to me in many ways – I have more than 20,000 likes and it's sharing software has allowed me to reach a much wider audience for my books and my blog than would have been possible without social media.
As Lynn saw, Facebook has a downside as well, I do spent some of my life – not much – arguing about what I write and believe and fending off advice and information that I did not ask for or want. I also get interesting comments and ideas, valued feedback and many links to stories and thoughts I would not otherwise see. I get a lot of new readers for my books and blog as well.
I believe in boundaries, and I am not on Facebook all day, or even much of it. Sometimes the comments are fascinating, sometimes like a runaway train from the dark side.
"It hurts me to see the rudeness that takes place there from both the readers and you," she wrote. 'Every time you have to tell someone to go somewhere else there is a potential buyer for a book gone." I was tempted to write Lynn back and tell her not to worry about my book sales, but I didn't, I thanked her and tried to explain to her how I felt about my intense and growing interactions with the world. She did not, unfortunately, mention the vast majority of comments I get on Facebook, the nice, supportive and thoughtful ones. I have come to value them more than I might have imagined.
Comments on Facebook – and elsewhere on the Internet – are a challenge for me, and for anyone who hosts a blog or who has ideas that are not necessarily conventional, that do not fit easily into the left or the right boxes of our time. There is no simple way to manage the rudeness, presumption, nastiness and rage that have come to characterize so much of the public space and public discourse in America. I am often thinking about it and learning about it, sometimes I do well, sometimes not.
I love my blog very much, it is my free place to share my life and my ideas, for better or worse. Since there are now about four million visits a year to the blog, I am humbled to see that other people want to hear what I have to say, book sales notwithstanding. (I did tell Lynn that the surest way for a writer to destroy himself was to weigh every word he writes against book sales, I will never do that.) I told people at the beginning that my blog would be open and authentic.
You get the good Jon Katz and you get the bad Jon Katz, but you will get the real one either way. In my mind, I am always looking to improve and understand myself, I have done a lot of work on me, I have a lot of work to do.
It hurts me too, Lynn, to deal with so much anger and hostility regarding my writing, I bet it hurts me more than you. I hate it, it is the cancer of our time, I think, especially online, where people do not have to think very long or hard about what they say and there are no penalties for cruelty and rage. Since I started writing about the New York Carriage horses, I have been getting many more angry and enraged e-mails from new readers. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn't. Mostly I ignore it, sometimes I don't.
I never imagined a life where so many people – often righteously and angrily – would be telling me what to write, what to do, what not to write. A great psychological challenge for me, I do not recall liking anyone who tells me what to write.
I have dealt with many things in my emotional life, anger and fear are two of them. I was in some form of therapy for nearly half of my life, and it did me a lot of good. There is help out there, and it helps. I told Lynn that I will never be a saint, never be perfect, never always behave the way I want to behave and wish to behave. I will never give up on doing better, being better, one day perhaps the bad Jon Katz will retire and go play chess on Sanibel Island. That will leave only the good Jon Katz for readers like Lynn to encounter.
Anger is a part of life, in one sense, the comments on my writing have forced me to learn about my own anger, and deal with it. I told Lynn I am much less angry than I used to be, and every time I deal with it, I learn something more about it. I will get there, and when I do, Facebook and the comments will have been a major reason.
I have better angels around me, I live with one, and they are working on me all of the time, reminding me that true compassion, something I believe in so strongly, only comes when we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. How often I fail, but when I succeed, I hear the angels singing for joy, shining their torches on the true path. How wonderful to see that path and walk on it, even briefly.
I liked Lynn's message, it was thoughtful and heartfelt, I wish I could make her happier, but I always tell my students that the writer has only one precious and reliable commodity to bring to every bit of his work: himself.
For better or worse, I can only be me. For a writer, everything is a gift, the tapestry of life, woven around me, and given back to you.