Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Building a Cult Following (Without Drinking the Kool-Aid) by Leslea M. Harmon

Dealing with Emotional Responses from your Readership

I'm not a journalist, really—but I play one in the papers. My college background includes the business school de rigueur of Economics and Finance, and a whole slew of Accounting classes. Nothing in my training about objectivity or ethics outside the standard auditing curriculum—and definitely not much there about dealing with public opinion. In Business school, it's the numbers that count, right?

When I ended up writing an opinion column for the local newspapers, I shortly thereafter began seeing my name on websites around the country, thanks to the newspapers' parent company and its syndication service. I was excited to hear from readers from all over, and looked forward to emotional responses, provoked by my thoughts on mothering and family life.

I have a healthy freelance writing career outside of the “Opinions” business—but my innermost reflections on parenting and family life in today's culture have been the entire source of discourse between my readers and me. No one gets really charged up because I interviewed someone for the local business rag, you know? Mention that I didn't wean my youngest until he was three years old, however? Stand back. People get steamed.

I love (love!!!) writing for the paper, but like many of you attending the Virtual Writers Conference, I aspire to be a best-selling novelist. I used to tell myself that my years of avid blogging made for great training for my future success as a best-selling author. The phenomenon of readers personalizing my writing, making it about themselves, and summarily getting angry at me for having violated their sacred world-view? I was used to it, when it came from a handful of crazies among the sea of thousands of internet readers.

When I was blogging about my daily life, I could shrug off overly emotional responses from readers with a “Well, they don't walk in my shoes—they don't really know me, do they?” I comforted myself with the thought that my idol JK Rowling was getting a lot worse. So what if a few random readers gave me grief about the way I over-protected my peanut-allergic child, or the many times I questioned my own disciplinary methods? At least no one was telling me I was going to Hell.

In the past four years of writing freelance opinion columns (I started at Clubmom.com in 2005 and moved to the paper in 2007), I've struck a nerve over several topics, such as spanking, diet, and children's behavior in public. I admit that my critics have been pretty quiet, but I did get a memorable email after I wrote about how unkind strangers can be to children in public.

The gist of the story was that kids are people, too, and they belong in public places as well as adults. Patience and consideration are things that have to go both ways—staring a struggling mother down, giving the evil-eye to the kids, etc. creates a hostile environment that makes it tougher for moms to manage their young children, thereby creating a bigger problem for you (as a third party) as you roll your eyes in line at the grocery store, or turn up your nose at the young child running down the hallway at the local library.

My editor received a lengthy email response to that piece, criticizing my parenting, my husband's parenting, accusing him of not having “control” over his family and insinuating we were all pretty much going to Hell in a handbasket.

Of course, I laughed, but there was something about knowing that letter came from a neighbor in the community—not just some faceless internet reader—that really gave me pause. Should I process it at all, emotionally? I mean, coming from someone who claimed her children had never given her a day's struggle in their entire lives, obviously she didn't pack a lot of credibility in her criticism. But, still. Was there any truth at all to her accusations?

I thought about it, and decided I would respond. I praised her for her success in parenting. I thanked her for her input. I indicated that her wisdom and availability in her adult children's lives surely did alleviate many of the struggles I, myself, had as a parent with no close family network around me. I wasn't sarcastic and I wasn't unkind.

I didn't bend, either.

I stood by my opinion, I stood by my message, I stood by my man and our family, and I stood by my status as a work-in-progress, as a human being and a mother. I think I even thanked her for writing to the paper.

Faceless stranger, neighbor, or close friend—no one has the right to take away from me my convictions, and by God, if the paper thinks they're interesting enough to print, then take 'em or leave 'em, I'm going to keep writing them and keep sharing them.

That's me. I'm an opinion columnist. I write about my life because life itself is interesting, funny, and thought-provoking at the same time. If people get a lift when they read about my kids' potty training escapades, I've done my job. If they get motivated to try recycling to save the Earth for the next generation, I've done my job. If they get ticked off because they saw themselves demonized in my generalizations of kid-hating meanies, then I've done my job.

Your job is to do the writing. The readers' job is to read the work, think about it, and—if you're lucky—maybe even respond.

Don't be afraid to do your job.


Leslea M. Harmon writes for a few websites, national publications, and a handful of wonderful papers and magazines in the Louisville, KY and Southern Indiana area. In addition to feature articles, news items, and other forms of content, she enjoys writing reviews, critiques, and doing research.


  1. Great advice, as always!

  2. Good for you, Leslea! I write a humor column and I'll admit to not pleasing everyone all the time, but my family is the worst when it comes to jumping on the critic bandwagon! Possibly because they're the ones who always end up in my column? :-)

  3. Hello Leslea:
    Thanks for this interesting article. I also searched the Internet and found your website and your column very interesting too (if the web address was mentioned in the article I must have missed it). I have two kids; about three years ago I decided to become a full time mother. For a long time I was thinking if it was a good idea to write about our days together. Your article may have given me the push (or the reassurance) that I needed! Thanks!

  4. Interesting article and on a subject I've never really thought of - the whole emotional response from your readership. Writing fiction doesn't elicit the same type of responses and I would think it'd be easier to separate oneself from responses like 'you're going to hell,J.K!' than to be accused of something like bad parenting based on your opinions. Hats off to you, Leslie!