Ethics of Blogging: Writing, Interpretations, & Responsibilities

So, I cracked the depression nut in a rant on the weekend that had a lot of positive response from people who’ve been there, with more than a few quietly thanking me for saying what needed to be said: People usually don’t choose to be depressed.

Now, apparently my tone was full of “hate,” according to the writer of the post that originally angered me, who commented on on my piece (psst… she sounded angry too).

Come on, I don’t hate anyone. I just get angry. I channel my rage into my writing and other areas in life. It’s a productive fuel. In fact, studies are coming out in which they’re realizing that anger is actually among the best catalysts one can have. Don’t like things in your life? Get angry and change them.

But I don’t wanna go into the philosophy behind Darth Vader’s School of Wellness here or anything. Another day, another soggy blog post, friends.

You know what kills me about posts like the one that irked me on the weekend? The arrogance of bloggers.

Okay. Whoa, Nellie. Wait for it. This is a complicated stance I have, but it also needs to be said, even if a bunch of bloggers might get grumpy at me.

First: If I didn’t think my voice mattered in cosmic mix, I wouldn’t have more than 2,000 posts, 4,000 drafts, and seven years of blogging underneath me. Clearly I think bloggers belong in the cosmic mix.

That said: We’re just bloggers.

We need to write responsibly. We need to use disclaimers that remind people that we’re not certified in all things awesome. We’re a voice with an opinion, and all we’re often bringing to the table is our experience.

As someone to whom edge and attitude come naturally, I understand wanting to turn a cool phrase or have things sound awesome. I know why we get stylistic, chuck some hyperbole in, and embrace flippant whimsy. I get it. I do it. I love it.

But there are times you have to stand back and really see how your words will be taken, and you have to watch it.

This writer accuses me of misconstruing her words, like it’s my fault they mean BOTH things.

I didn’t pull my interpretation out of my ass. It was RIGHT THERE, honey, in the words you wrote. If you’re going to take something huge and life-altering like depression and throw 90 words at it, you can bet your ass you’re leaving a wide door to walk through on the interpretations front. This is why we have DISCLAIMERS, and I’ll get to that after.

As a writer, while I absolutely love pushing buttons, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many examples of when I’ve done so irresponsibly in a way that could hurt people. Depression is one of those topics I wade into very trepidatiously, because I know people are unhinged to begin with, and I know how easily the wrong comment can trigger something in someone.

When I write about depression, I now do so from a largely “PAST” perspective. I’m not “depressed” anymore. I’m normal now. I have ups, I have downs.

Someone out there’s probably going “Oh, see? You’re ashamed. You won’t cop to being depressed.”

No, you know why? Because I’m not depressed! I love the snarky side of me, and that’s staying around. I’m not ashamed of my experiences with depression — but I’m proud I’ve battled out of it for a pretty average, stable existence. It’s proof one can get out of chemical depressions and get away from that horrible crushing place. I pulled a Gloria Gaynor, man. I survived.

It takes a long time, but it can be done, and there’s no one answer, which is why it seems so insurmountable.

And BECAUSE I know there’s no one answer, I know there are people out there who are as smart as me and as big on research as I am, and I know they’re at home late at night Googling for things to read about depression (or insert whatever other hot-button topic people don’t publicly discuss — like domestic abuse, etc) so they can get other perspectives.

And when they DO find something on Google about depression, I hope to fuck they’re reading someone realistic like me, and not someone bubbling on about choosing to be happy and making it sound like it’s some short-term project that’s easily accomplished because that suits the smaller, quicker, more upbeat post they’ve been tasked with writing.

If you’re clinically depressed, it is mental illness. It’s not when you’re thinking clearly, and that’s exactly why I try to be as straight-talking and clear as possible, for that 5-10% of my audience who might currently be experiencing that hell and who need a relatable perspective that might make them feel like someone else has lived in that world too. It’s okay for it to be hard. It’s okay to write about that.

You’re goddamned right that it’s arrogant of me to think I might play a role in shaping how they think about X-subject this week or five years from now, and to care about writing in a way that’s relevant on these things, but I’ve been given good reason to feel I’m relevant.

So, yes, many bloggers are arrogant. They’re sometimes more concerned with having a good read or getting their $50 payment from some blog magazine site. There’s this “nutshell” syndrome where everyone thinks just touching on a topic is good enough.

God help you if your post is over 500 words and you actually SAY something, you know.

While the writer of the piece that angered me, she actually had a few really great points on OTHER topics, and if she’d simply put a ONE LINE DISCLAIMER in the paragraph about depression, the whole fucking piece would’ve been FINE with me. All she had to say was, “Depression can be a serious and fatal condition, and while it can be self-treated, one needs to talk to their doctor. Not all depressions can be handled the same.” Then, boom. Perfect. Responsible. Big picture.

That’s it. That’s what that article was missing.

When it comes to blogging, I feel responsible to speak truth, be honest about who I am, get my facts right, and respect that my words might be construed differently by others, and it’s up to me to take a solid look at what I write before I publish it so I know all the ways someone might read into it, and if anything’s going to come back and bite me, I fix it up.

(It’s an old editing trick. Pretend you have no clue what you just wrote, read it “out loud” in your head, and try to understand it for the “first time.” Works.)

And here’s a thing: Most of the time, no matter how someone “interprets” what you’ve written, they’re not wrong. Not really. Words are flexible. They’re like cattle. They’ll pretty much go anywhere they want, and it takes a skilled hand to rein ’em in. But that’s what writers do. Or, it’s what they should do.

Okay, gather ’round kids, and Auntie Steff will tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I took three weeks to write a post about my dead mother. Seven years later, I’m still proud of the writing and I remember how hard it was for me to get it done. I write in minutes and hours, not over the course of weeks. Very nervously, I published it.

Months later, it was Christmas, and I checked my email. There was a $500 “gift” on PayPal from a reader. She said she had never been able to express the world of hurt her mother’s death caused her, and reading this post of mine, she said she sent it to every friend she had and said “When I’m sad about Mom, this is why.”

Oddly, I’ve had very few donations in the years since, and nothing even close to that, but the Christmas Donation taught me something very important about blogging and writing.

In our very anonymous words, sometimes strangers around the world find some meaning, something they can relate to. On a microscopic scale, we can change lives.

I believe in blogging. I consider myself blessed to be alive at a time when I can have a voice in the mix. I’m astounded at readers’ abilities to connect and tell me what resonates.

And, like Uncle Ben told Spidey, with great power comes great responsibility.

So, when blogging about depression and other very serious things people are likely to take to heart in very dark manners, it’s worth a little time to ensure you’re not blowing things off, making light of dangerous conditions, and that your words have been chosen with all the right reasons.

Be careful, Grasshopper, because you know not who you write for.