“…under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other’s hands?” – Bruno Schulz
Writers are needy people, aren’t we. I was reminded of this most recently because a story I wrote was published in Infuze. I was certainly happy and excited about it, and I was eager to see what comments people left for me. I was hoping that some of the writers I respect would read it and say nice things. Then I was ashamed of myself for worrying about what other people thought of it. I questioned my motivation for sending the story to Infuze in the first place. Do I write to receive the praise of men? Or do I recognize that my ultimate critic is God and he’s the one I need to worry about pleasing?
The quote Kathleen Popa suggested as a starting point this month relates to this issue. Because I believe that we don’t write in a vacuum. We expect someone to read our stories and essays. Even as I write this I wonder about the people who will read it. Will it resonate with them? Or will they dismiss it as the rambling navel gazing of an aging baby boomer.
Mark often talks about writing as being part of an ongoing conversation. He’s thinking more in terms of writing as part of a tradition extending from the great authors of the past into the present. And certainly there’s truth in that. We all can think of writers who have influenced us in different ways. I want to write mysteries, so I’d better be conversant with the tradition — from Edgar Allan Poe through Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to Sue Grafton and Michael Connolly. This very essay is part of a conversation about Christian fiction between writers from diverse backgrounds.
But the conversation also includes the readers. In fact, it must include the readers. I’ve read books and stories by all the mystery writers I named above. Before I was a writer, I was a reader (compulsively so – as a kid I would read the backs of the cereal boxes while I ate breakfast, I read signs posted in windows – if it had words on it, I read it.). When I open a book, there’s an unspoken contract between the writer and myself. The writer says “Here’s a story I think you’ll enjoy. Sit down, relax, let me share it with you.” And I say, “OK, I’ll see what you have to say and let you show me a different way of looking at the world.” A reader has to be open to what the writer has to say, and a writer has to be aware of the one who will read his words.
Of course, you can’t please every reader, nor should you want to. Stephen King, in his excellent memoir On Writing, says he writes for his Ideal Reader – his wife. He suggests that most writers have someone in mind when they write, someone whose opinion they value, someone they trust to give an honest assessment of the words on the page.
So I believe that writing is reaching out to readers. When I write, I'm hoping that my words will connect in some way with someone. It was a very satisfying feeling to read the comments on my story because I could tell that the story connected with the readers, even touched a few of them. They got it. In that way, the readers responded to me, clasped my hand under the table, so to speak. That may not always happen, of course. But I believe that by reaching out, I'm making myself available to God, to do his work through my words (if he so chooses). And even if there is no praise, the reaching out is what he wants me to do. Sometimes that will have to be enough.