Everyone has a story to tell, but sometimes not everyone wants to hear it. What happens when this is your story? How do you get skeptical, or even hostile, readers to pay attention?
Jess Stoner faced this problem in her essay, “Blues On Wheels,” about her experience with illegal and abusive labor practices as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. The essay is one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces of writing that I’ve read in a long time. It was published at The Morning News, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
Stoner writes about the systematic abuse that she and other carriers faced at the USPS. She was screamed at and threatened, forced to work off the clock, and required to work as many as 12 days in a row without a day off. When she was bitten by a dog (off-leash, unfenced), her supervisor told her she’d likely be fired—because getting bitten was her fault. All of these abuses are unethical, and some of them are illegal. It would seem reasonable to assume that Stoner could tell these things to anyone and find a sympathetic ear. But that isn’t the case.
Stoner was working in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, which means it has laws that reduce the power of labor unions. Unions, of course, are a politically charged topic, but they aren’t the primary reason that some readers may object to Stoner’s story. Instead, the problem for many readers would be that Stoner is telling the story at all. Americans’ resistance to unions is just the beginning of our reluctance to listen to stories about workplace problems. We tend to believe in working hard and not complaining, perhaps because of that old Protestant work ethic and almost certainly because of the recent economic recession. When many people don’t have any job at all, it’s natural to resent someone who complain about the job they do have, no matter how unfair or illegal its practices.
So, in writing this essay, Stoner needed to find a way to convince the reader from walking away. Given that need, watch how she begins the second section of the essay:
I wanted to be a letter carrier because I have always loved checking the mail. It has been one of the highlights of my day since I was a kid, when my favorite aunt, who lived more than 1,000 miles away, would send me letters and packages. I had also been underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months. I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind. I wanted a paycheck.
Everyone I knew was happy for me when I was hired; many said that delivering the mail was their secret dream job. They told me about the letter carriers they grew up with, whose names they knew.
Stoner makes clear that she wanted the job and understood the physical nature of it (“I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind.”) In other words, she removes the potential objection by readers who may have believed she wasn’t up to the demands of the job in the first place. Stoner also makes clear that she was struggling in the same difficult economy as everyone else (“underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months”)—an important distinction for readers who’ve been similarly beaten down and, as a result, are alert to the first whiffs of elitism or privilege.
Stoner continues with these attempts to reach out to the reader, making clear (again) that she’s not afraid of hard work:
I’m a Type-A person who grew up as a member of the lower middle class; I’ve always been driven to work hard, no matter where I was employed: the warehouses, convenience stores and restaurants before and during college, and after graduating, the nonprofits, the universities where I taught.
But Stoner is also careful to note that the job is not a matter of life or death—she won’t starve without it.
I constantly reminded myself: You have chosen to work for the USPS. You can quit…I had the privilege of walking away, something my husband begged me to do on a daily basis. We are a childless couple; we could survive a few months of my unemployment.
Of course, even with these caveats, it’s possible that some readers will dismiss Stoner’s very legitimate complaints as mere whining. You can’t convince those who aren’t willing to listen. But it’s likely that these caveats allow the essay to reach readers who might otherwise have ignored it, which is all that any writer can hope for.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s reach out to hostile readers using “Blues on Wheels” by Jess Stoner as a model:
- Identify the hostile readers. In our partisan climate, it’s not difficult to anger some readers even with seemingly innocuous material. But if you’re writing about sex, dating, parenting, healthcare, dietary preferences, entertainment choices (TV, movies, video games, hiking, hunting, target practice), death and dying, cultural mores and idiosyncrasies, inequality, or work, you’re likely to run into objections. In other words, unless you’re writing about your favorite ice cream flavor, there’s likely a partisan perspective on your topic. But we often aren’t aware of these objections because we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. So, imagine yourself in a community that isn’t your own. If you were to begin telling your story, what would people say?
- Give those readers the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to demonize people who disagree with you. But it’s not a great rhetorical strategy, no matter how righteous your cause. (Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. began his letter, written from Birmingham Jail, to the white preachers who criticized his nonviolent actions: “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”) In other words, don’t be condescending—or at least hide your condescension the best that you can.
- Make your biases clear. We rarely come to an issue with no preconceived notions. Sometimes they’re positive, sometimes they’re negative, and other times they simply exist. Be careful not to reserve expressions of shock for when they’re most warranted. This is, perhaps, why Stoner makes it clear that she always wanted to be a postal carrier. She knew something about the job and valued its importance. In other words, show your familiarity with the subject you’re writing about.
- If possible, relate to the readers. If the hostility is a matter of class (real or perceived), try to narrow that distance. Politicians do this with varied success by holding guns and wearing Carhartt jackets. This is easier done if the connections are real. Stoner grew up working class and says so. She was struggling to find full employment and says so. So, ask yourself, “How am I like my hostile readers?”
- If necessary, admit your privilege. There are limits to how much you can relate to certain readers—overdo it, and you’ll appear to be insincere. So, be honest. If not everyone can make the choices you’ve made, say so. If your choices or beliefs are influenced by cultural factors that aren’t present everywhere, admit it. If there are many positions one can take on an issue, don’t write as if there are only two (yours and mine). If you once believed differently than you do now, say so and give your reader the chance to make the same philosophical journey as you.
Remember, the goal isn’t to dilute your point but to make it heard by as many people as possible.