Saturday, June 5, 2010

Post at your Own Risk

It's funny how things happen.

As one of the senior employees in the department and also the department trainer of the company where I used to work, I always tried to keep one ear tuned to what was happening around me, particularly when our boss was away. I did it mostly to make sure there was no imminent crisis brewing, something that might inevitably require my attention.

One day, I noticed a flurry of activity in the next row of cubicles. Several of my co-workers were hovering together, looking at something. I glanced over, but they didn't seem to need my attention. Since I was pretty busy at the time, I just went back to the task at hand.

The activity continued, people in various combinations bending their heads together, remarking over something. There were several bursts of laughter, a few exclamations, and a whole bunch of chatter.

As expected, only a few moments later I heard my name. I stopped what I was doing, and looked up to find one co-worker gesturing for me to come over. I got up and walked around to them.

"You need to look at this," she said, thrusting a single piece of paper toward me.

Let me stop my story here and ask you this: Have you ever experienced a moment so surreal that you seriously questioned whether you were awake? Has the very weirdness of something ever made you think that the entire day leading up to that point must have been a dream? Well, that's how I felt at that moment.

I took the piece of paper and looked at it. There, staring back at me, was a poem I'd written at least a year before. It was a poem comparing my place of employment to Dante's ninth circle of Hell.

"Have you ever seen this before?" my co-worker asked. "This is really weird. I wonder who did this."

Staring at the poem, I wondered if someone had slipped a hallucinogenic into my bottled water that morning. How could someone have found the poem? Yes, it was posted on Writing.com, but nobody in my office knew the link to my portfolio. Hell, nobody knew I even had an online portfolio. Further, few people there even knew that I was a writer.

So, silently, I continued staring at the offending poem, my mind spinning faster than a top. This couldn't be happening.

What were the odds of someone finding something buried so deeply in my portfolio? Even if they'd stumbled onto my portfolio, what was the likelihood they've have found that particular poem? (Yeah, I know...Hello, Dummy, have you heard of a thing called Google??)

"I wonder who could have done this," one co-worker said, over and over.

A little bit of time must have passed, because eventually, I realized that several sets of eyes were focused on me.

In spite of myself, I felt my mouth lifting into a grin. I tried to keep my face hidden, tried to keep my reaction from showing, but it was useless.

"You wrote it!" the co-worker who'd called me over said finally.

I started to shake my head in a No. I opened my mouth to protest, and instead I found myself laughing.

"You wrote it," she said again, and in spite of my better judgment, I nodded.

My co-workers, of course, were simply delighted with this revelation, delighted that a member of their own department had written the incriminating item.

I came to find out that a woman who works in another department did an Internet search on Google. For keywords, she used our company's name (which I'd used in my poem--and who'd ever see it, I thought, when I wrote it way back when--and the word "Hell."

Sure enough, my little poem had popped up right at the top of the search results.

By that afternoon, most of the 200+ people in our office had read my poem. Throughout the day, I passed by groups of people chuckling over a copy. In the break room, people were quoting lines from the poem. They were loving it. And I was famous--or maybe infamous would be the better choice of words--all because I'd posted something on the Internet.

I'm fairly computer literate. I should have known better. I should have considered the possibility, but at the time I'd written the poem, it had seemed so incredibly remote. Hardly worth worrying about. I'd never even imagined someone finding it through an Internet search.

Admittedly, I did find the whole thing pretty hilarious. After all, I'd entertained nearly the entire staff, and only a few people knew the true identity of the piece's author. I trusted the people who knew not to give me up to the authorities.

Of course, the truth is that if executive management had seen it, and if they'd been able to trace it back to me, I would have gotten fired for it and it would have been completely justified. I don't think the chief operating officer of our company would have taken too kindly to being likened to a demon from the pits of hell (even if it did sort of fit).

My ex-husband tells me I have a knack for finding new and unusual ways of getting myself in trouble.

My mother, upon hearing the story, told me. "You never learn, do you? Using the name of your company in a poem. Not too bright."

The bottom line is that we all take inspiration from our lives. Sometimes it's themes. Loss. Injustice. Revenge. Other times, as with this poem, it takes on a more concrete representation. Real people, whether we admit to it or not, often populate our pages. We're writers. Words are our tools, our weapons, our shields.

And we speculative fiction writers sometimes take it a step farther. That waitress who spilled coffee all over you and wasn't even apologetic about it...how satisfying would it be to write her into your latest story, only to have her eaten by giant, mutant squirrels? Your boss, who belittles you at every turn...well, what marvelous fates can be cooked up for him?

It's harmless, mostly, but sometimes--as I found out--it can come back to bite you.

I don't believe in censoring. As long as you aren't causing harm to anyone, I believe you have the right to write whatever you desire. Still, as writers who sometimes post our writing publicly, it's a good idea to use discretion.

Luckily for me, there were never any repercussions from this little debacle--though if there had been, I suspect I would have laughed myself silly all the way to the unemployment office because boy, what a way to go!--but though I blocked the poem from public view and changed the company name within the poem, for the rest of my stint with the company, I never knew when a copy would resurface and do me in.

Besides, it could have been much, much worse. Rather than the poem, someone could have discovered the short story I wrote where the company's COO meets with a most unsavory end!

(Since I'm doing a novel-in-a-month challenge this month, this is a post that originally appeared in a Writing.com newsletter back when I was one of the editors. Since it's one of my favorite writing-related stories to tell, I thought I'd recycle it in my blog!)

6 comments:

  1. Oh, thank you for sharing this story and for the reminder. It's so easy to think that nobody would find us on the Internet, but really, every thing we write can definitely come back and haunt us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Talk about lucky (and unlucky).
    Thanks for this reminder that the web is indeed a public place.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A cautionary tale. I'm amazed sometimes by the stuff I find still "out there" whenever I do random searches on either my name or my books.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ha excellent story! And you've learned many things, that your writing can move people and to keep things you want private safely secured. : j

    Internet users are like 9 year olds and cats, they'll get into anything!

    ReplyDelete
  5. That is both frightening and hilarious. A very close shave you had there! Especially since so many people at your work knew that it was you who had written it. A good reminder to people who often forget that some things can really come back to bite you on the butt. Thanks for sharing this story.♥

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, everyone, for the nice comments. I'm glad you appreciated my crazy little close call. It was a lesson I won't soon forget.

    ReplyDelete