This week, I’ve been called stupid, dumb b!#ch, unpatriotic, and many other profanity-filled names online because of a commentary I wrote about guns in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t say I’m surprised. When I wrote the article, I knew it would be controversial, people would respond angrily, and the internet is a mean and judgmental place. I also knew readers might make me feel I was dead wrong, and that I would probably crawl under a blanket for a few days with writer’s remorse (which I did).
But I published the piece anyway and have forced myself to read the comments out of respect for the time it took to post them. I’ve wanted to respond to many, but haven’t quite known how to walk into the spray.
So I’ve turned the experience inwards, and absorbed the messages I’ve found helpful – those who shared their stories, poked valid holes in my arguments, and urged me to calm down (advice I can always use).
The experience has also made me marvel at the creation process as a whole because this article was very unusual for me. I am rarely, if ever, political. Studying international affairs taught me the world’s biggest conflicts are so complex that no matter how I approach them, I’m going to get something wrong. So don’t bother.
And yet, I felt the urge to tackle one of the most complex topics on the planet – America’s gun control policies. What got into me?
A large part of it was timing. The idea came to me in the first week of October when in America (where I’m from) an armed man walked into Oregon’s Umpqua Community College and gruesomely opened fire, while Singapore (where I live) was covered in thick hazy smoke from fires burning in Indonesia. I wanted to crawl out of Asia and go back to the East Coast’s crisp clean autumn, but reading about the violence and brittle gun debates made home feel like a sepia-toned illusion.
I wrote at first for myself. I felt the need to articulate the two fears I felt trapped between, and to grieve for my children’s lungs and the violence in my country. Then I wrote for others who might identify with what I was feeling. And finally, with some anger and great trepidation, I wrote for the point of views out there I feel are perpetuating the gun problem.
After I finished, I sent it to my closest people and pressed shut my laptop. No way should you publish it, they said. That would be crazy my family said. Someone may try to shoot your mother, a friend back home joked. The gun problem is not as bad as you see it, my brother said.
The red flags were up. I knew the article didn’t perfectly express everything and left out important parts of my story: How I actually took my children out of China to get away from air pollution, but it has so diligently followed me through Indonesia to Singapore that I feel forced to make peace with it; How back in America someone warned my mother after my father died that people in town knew she didn’t have a gun; I worry. There’s more too. There always is, to everyone.
Yet, the article pulsed with life in my head despite its imperfections. It felt done enough as it was, inexplicably, like an energy that came through my fingers and was ready to be put right back out.
So eventually and after much debate, I took a deep breath and hit send just for the relief of no longer wondering if I should or not.
Then I felt afraid, and very anxious.
Stupid. Dumb B!#ch. Privileged. Out of touch expat. Stay the f$#@ in Asia. You're Indian, are you even American? Don’t come back… This is a sample of what my audience returned to me, in abundance.
Ouch. That hurt. Except for one: yes, I am Indian and American – they’re not mutually exclusive.
What was the purpose behind that original energy then, I’ve been asking myself? Did I handle it correctly? Or did I mistake it for some selfish desire to provoke? Did I overblow and turn hyperbolic the emotions of a stressful week? Or was the piece cathartic to the handful who have told me they understand and relate to how I was feeling?
In the midst of the storm, a friend of gave me Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” In it, she describes ideas as these little independent beings out there in the universe flying around trying to find someone willing to express them into being.
My first reaction was: well isn’t that a convenient way to dodge creative responsibility?
But then she goes on to a compelling story about how one idea leaves her and lands on her friend Ann Patchett instead. I've had that experience. Gilbert writes:
“It all called to mind the British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s memorable explanation of how the universe works. ‘Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.’
“But the best part is: I don’t need to know what.”
I slipped my bookmark into the page and closed it. I couldn’t help but feel she was right. Maybe I didn’t need to know why I wrote this article? Maybe I wasn’t even supposed to know? Maybe I had to write it so I would learn I couldn’t ever really know.
In fact, maybe what really mattered was how I would change my approach to other ideas in the future - both about where my family lives and what I write next. Would I let the hate make me suspicious and doubtful of my creative impulses? Or would I look at the energy the piece created as a whole and take it as a sign that what I wrote was intended to grow, both in and outside of me? Would I use it to build courage?
I chose the latter. Seen through that perspective, the week has become an adventure-filled gift to me. I’ve been hoisted up on the shoulders of an energetic idea and swept away. I've been comforted by new friends and other writers' words. I've survived hundreds of mean insults while learning from opposing viewpoints. What a brilliant and illuminating experience. I'm ready for the next idea to come.
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