When Personal Writing is Profitable
The work that gets the most hate mail also makes me the most money. How do I deal with that?
TW: Sexual Assault, Sexual Coercion
I write about a lot of heavy and personal topics — sexual assault, traumatic death, gender dysphoria, Autism, and eating disorders among them. I started writing about such things because doing so helped me craft a coherent narrative out of a ton of rough life experiences and physical symptoms. I was lonesome, hungry, self-loathing, and hyper-vigilant — the writing helped me sort out why. The act of writing had an observable positive impact on my mood, self-destructive behaviors, and self-compassion.
By posting my writing online, I came into contact with a lot of people who were also lonesome, hungry, self-loathing, and hyper-vigilant. This made the writing even more emotionally beneficial. Through it, I made new friends and felt less freakish. When people expressed genuine gratitude for my writing, I was moved. I certainly had been saved and healed by others’ writing in the past. That my work was capable of doing the same for other people was massively rewarding.
At some point, writing became rewarding in a third way: I started making real money off of it. And that, by far, has been the benefit that’s been the most fraught and complicated.
Last year, a curator with Medium encouraged me to start monetizing my essays under the Medium Partner Program.
I was aware of the program, but hadn’t really considered using it. I’d sold essays and short stories to magazines before; I certainly wasn’t opposed to making money off my work on principle. But I’d grown accustomed to writing and posting things because I felt creatively or emotionally compelled to, and because it felt good to receive feedback from other people.
Still, placing a few select pieces behind a paywall and collecting a couple of bucks from them seemed relatively harmless. I figured that, at worst, it would make people read my essays less — in which case I would stop monetizing.
The opposite happened. Because my work was monetized, it was more likely to be featured by Medium on the site’s front page. And, because my work was usually a blend of timely analysis and juicy, personal confession, it tended to capture the interest of a fair number of people. Including, for the first time, a sizable contingency of folks who were not thankful for my work, and didn’t want to wish me well.
I was writing, as I always had, about my own experiences — as a rape survivor, an Autistic person, a genderqueer person, and more — but I was also connecting those personal confessions to events in the world at large. I used my own assault to talk about how Aziz Ansari’s victim, “Grace”, might have felt being coerced into sex. I explored the #MeToo phenomenon while describing times I narrowly dodged rape. During Autism Acceptance Month, I discussed how my Autism presented both challenges and advantages in my life.
People like personal narratives. They’re easier to read and process than aggregate facts. They’re more enjoyable to write, too. But when the subject of the personal narrative is an experience of rape or stigma, it’s easy for argumentative or bigoted people to pick it apart. An anecdote is not a fact, after all. Relating a personal experience is a pretty limited persuasive technique. I had gotten into the habit of being vulnerable in my writing because I emotionally benefited from doing so — and because my readers appreciated it. But now that I had a wider audience, my vulnerability was providing readers with a means of attacking me.
And they did.
It’s really difficult to be an outspoken survivor of sexual assault. Every time I write a piece detailing my experiences, people comment, email and message me, claiming that I did not fight back hard enough. They demand to know more details about my assault, so they can determine if it truly was an assault. They ask why I didn’t fight back, even if the entire purpose and subject of the piece was explaining, precisely, why victims don’t fight back. Some of them insult me for besmirching my attackers’ good names, even though I have never publicly named them.
Readers, usually white men and women, intentionally misgender me, tell me to toughen up, and send me repeated demands for additional information, even after I have answered them or requested that they stop. Dudes with daughters tell me how they’d want their daughters to respond to an attack, as if they have any fucking relevant expertise on the matter. Women who have never been assaulted tell me that they don’t understand why I wasn’t stronger and bolder, eight years ago, when the attacks happened.
When comments like these roll in, there is no ideal way to respond. If I block anyone, it is taken as a sign of weakness and fear rather than annoyance. If I respond and try to carefully explain my viewpoints, I am met with increasingly hostile resistance and repeated rephrasings of questions I have already answered. If I show any attitude whatsoever, I am seen as arrogant and unsympathetic. It is exceedingly rare that someone actually listens, asks an informed question, and digests my response.
It is wearying. And infuriating. And it’s not worth my time. For the most part, I have tired of trying to persuade people that my sexual assaults were real. I don’t see much point in fighting with people in the comments. If someone asks a polite question, I’ll try to level with them, but sometimes even then they escalate to victim-blaming and derailment. Addressing trolls with snark is sometimes satisfying, but it’s usually just a drain on my time.
Thankfully, none of this is my job. I don’t have to deal with any of these people. I started writing because I loved doing it, and I still do. But when I put time and mental energy into crafting a piece and publishing it online for free, I am not only gratifying myself. I am also giving the world a gift. My work has educated and comforted people. It’s helped me find genuine friends. I’m grateful for that, but that gratitude does not need to extend to every inconsiderate reader and commenter who wants to know why I didn’t wake up my housemates when my ex-boyfriend was pressuring me to fellate him while I cried and said no repeatedly, all the way back in 2010.
I hate derailing, victim-blaming, and entitled comments. They’re annoying, and at times, retraumatizing. However, since my work is monetized, I can profit from people’s bad impulses. That’s a fact I find both ethically troubling and perversely satisfying.
Medium’s monetization is based, largely, on reader engagement. The more people comment, share, and “clap” for a piece, the more money a writer makes. Sometimes, Medium’s curators and editors can put their thumbs on the scale a bit by featuring a piece on the main page, or by giving a writer a $100 bonus. But, for the most part, Medium’s payment scheme is populist. It doesn’t matter that the work be well-written or well-researched per se — it just needs to draw people in. A piece that is provocative and inflamatory can do as well as a piece that’s crafted and respectable.
This is true throughout the internet, of course. A controversial, tone-deaf editorial that gets tons of hate-reads, outraged shares, and angry comments generates a lot of ad revenue. Being loudly furious about a piece of bad or irresponsible writing just increases the piece’s visibility. The more we engage with shitty content, the more we increase the demand for it. Even the most level-headed among us take this bait on a regular basis, feeding into the very system that dismays us.
Medium, at least, rewards writers using subscription dollars rather than advertising revenue. I take significant comfort in that. When someone reads my piece and “claps” for it, I make money because of their Medium membership, not because my work has allowed Medium to sell the reader’s eyeballs to an advertiser.
And when my work is commented on by someone who clearly hates me and what I stand for, I feel puerile satisfaction. I’m more than happy to leech a few cents of their hard-earned membership dollars. I can’t make these commenters stop. I block the most egregious ones, and I talk with the people who I genuinely believe can be reached, but there is an endless stream of them every time I write about negative things that have happened to me. I’m not gonna stop writing, and they’re not going to stop coming; given that’s the situation, I’m glad I can make a little money off of them.
Bearing my soul comes at a real cost. Anyone who Googles me can easily find details about how I identify, what disabilities and mental illnesses I have, and how I have been abused. I decided, a long time ago, that sharing such details was worthwhile, because it emotionally benefited me and provided education and comfort to others. Now that my work is more popular, its confessional nature comes with the added cost of more harassment. Thankfully it comes with a benefit, too.
If you’re someone who likes to victim-blame or harass in the comments of my work, keep it up. I’m done wasting my time trying to educate you. From now on, your engagement is, for me, pure profit.
And if you’re an assault survivor or a writer whose work exposes you to similar frustrations, know that you don’t owe commenters any of your time. Your work is a gift. The time you spend educating and comforting other people is charitable and beautiful and very very optional. Don’t hate-read monetized pieces, and don’t let yourself get dragged into fights that line the pockets of hateful people. Refusing to feed trolls requires considerable willpower, but when we hold firm, we change the power dynamic, such that the trolls are instead feeding us.