Monday, April 6, 2015

Reflections on Writing Op-Ed Columns for My College Newspaper (AKA How I'll Face Bad Reviews)

Not many people know this, but back when I was a wide-eyed college student in my early twenties, I got hired by my college's newspaper to write a weekly op-ed column. It paid a whopping $5-$10 based on my editor's budget that week, which buys a lot of quarter drafts at the local bar.

The photographer taking my head shot said, "Have fun pissing people off."

And for many in that extremely rural town, that's exactly what I did.

That's not to say I didn't have admirers. My viewpoints have dulled a bit since then -- I'm more pragmatic than idealistic nowadays -- but I had plenty of peers who wrote in support of me and/or told me in person how much they appreciated my work.

For a good long while I didn't hear anything negative. It was disappointing, to tell you the truth. I wasn't looking for a written fistfight, but it would have been nice to know I'd snagged a reader from somewhere else on the sociopolitical spectrum.

And then I snagged one.

That first amazing counter-argument ran on the opposite page of the op-ed logo. The writer closed it beautifully, with the words "Shame on you, Grosso" followed by a litany of accusations about my moral dishonesty and questionable integrity. I can't remember what the writer was mad about -- probably something along the lines of green technology or gays openly serving in the military.

It was wonderful.

I showed it to my friends.

I showed it to my parents (I brought home two copies so they could read it at the same time).

I showed it to anyone willing to take a look. I was proud that my words had provoked a strong emotional reaction in a total stranger.

Most people I showed it to said, "Um... that's great?" and gave me an awkward smile.

I still had plenty of supporters, but my haters blossomed overnight.

I ran into people at bars who said, "I would buy you a drink if you weren't a liar."

I bumped into people on campus who said, "You need to be careful or someone's going to kick your ass."

I rode a dormitory elevator with a funny looking red-faced guy. He waited until I had exited the elevator and the doors were closing behind me before he shouted, "Your columns f###ing suck!"

I remember those moments with humor and affection. They meant a lot to me. Is it odd to feel that way? Should I be angry that I did my job appropriately, and others responded by trying to scare and shame me?

I wasn't angry then, and I'm not now. Some of the encounters (the guy in the elevator, for example) were just plain silly. How am I supposed to get mad at a guy who acts tough by shouting an obscenity at the very moment I lose the ability to respond? That's all around hilarious. Laughter is the appropriate reaction.

And that first letter, with it's wonderful "Shame on you, Grosso", and all the other negative commentary, came from people with opposing viewpoints whose responses weren't entirely inappropriate. Between the threats and elevator incidents were legitimate arguments calling me out for my overly idealistic solutions and over-zealous language. I still believe the core of most of their arguments were wrong (and I'm sure the feeling is mutual), but that didn't make me bullet-proof then and it doesn't now. I wrote plenty of silly things between my supposed introspective moments.

And quite frankly, the negative responses were a lot more entertaining than the positive ones.

That's why I'm trying pretty hard not to stress about bad reviews. I'm approaching my inevitable first one-star Goodreads/Amazon review the same way I approached my dissenters at the college newspaper -- with guile and humor. It'll be harder now that the target is something much closer to my heart, but I think I can handle it. Right?

Granted, Kirkus is a lot scarier than "elevator guy".

* * *

Mike Grosso is the author of I AM DRUMS, a debut contemporary middle grade for musicians of all ages. It is currently orphaned due to the closing of Egmont USA but is on its way to finding a new home. The Fall Fifteeners have been nice enough to let him hang out in the meantime.

You can visit Mike's website here or follow him on Twitter @mgrossoauthor.

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