R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

In Praise of Readers

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

I think it did. I also suspect that when we repeat the question, we’re not just talking about trees. Trees don’t care if they make a sound. They’re going to fall, and rustle, and crack, whether we hear them or not.

For me, writing is part of a conversation. I do want people to hear the rustling and cracking of my words, and more than that: I want to hear what they have to say in response. I’ve had three one-act plays produced, and I love giving readings. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing and hearing people respond to my words.

mud-cover-smIt’s a rare audience that will sit still for a book-length work, but I’m lucky: I’ve experienced what has to be the next-best thing. Last Wednesday and the Wednesday before, I got to sit down and talk with a group of women all of whom had read my novel, The Mud of the Place, and were interested in what I was writing about, the lives of year-round residents in a seasonal resort.

Minnesota Women's Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that's all about books, writers, and readers.

Minnesota Women’s Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that’s all about books, writers, and readers.

These women, who came from all around the U.S. and Canada too, were participants in Books Afoot, also known as Reading on the Road, a program of the Minnesota Women’s Press. As organizer Mollie Hoben described it in an email, “The basic idea is that reading and travel make a rewarding combination. We pick a destination, learn about women writers from that place (which always involves exciting discoveries), select books to read beforehand, then travel there with interested reader-travelers for exploration and book discussion. Participants come from all over the country.”

I first learned about Books Afoot a year and a half ago, when Mollie contacted me out of the blue. Three Books Afoot groups would be coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall, and my novel was one of the four “required reading” books. Would I be willing to meet with any or (ideally) all of the groups?

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

Would I?? This was a fantasy come true, and the reality surpassed my wildest expectations. (I blogged about it here.) I’d pretty much decided that writing a second novel was a waste of time. These women changed my mind.

This year we were joined by my writer friend Shirley Mayhew, whose wonderful Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard came out early this summer — too late for the travelers to have read it before they got here, but plenty of them bought a copy to take home with them. Shirley moved here as a young bride in 1947; I arrived solo in 1985. Our books and our very different but overlapping experiences became gateways for the visitors to enter a place that many people know about but few actually know.

Last month I concluded a blog post, “Who Do You Write For?,” with this description of the kind of reader I’d like to be: “one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.”

When a book goes out into the world, does it make a sound? If it does, will I hear it through all the cacophonous competition? Having sat down and talked with dozens of such adventurous readers, I know you’re out there. I’m writing for you.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.