Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shared Conspiracy: How the Reader Makes the Story

It's an odd little miracle, isn't it? Black marks on a page that mean something: a word. The word that means a thing that isn't even there. You read cat, you think cat and there's actually no cat. Not a cat for miles.

But this isn't just any cat. This is a fat, tangerine-colored tabby with white markings and inches-thick fur who moves lazily, purringly, across a white carpet in a white room with winter outside and a lit fire inside. Or, no, it's a muddled-gray stray with matted fur, stretched and draggy from too many kittens, who comes squeezing out from beneath the cement steps of an ailing clapboard, mewing hoarsely.

Or, wait: it's not a cat at all. It's a person. A real cool cat. A crooner, a suitor. Sly one. Tiger. Any old untamed thing.

You are the writer. What'll it be?

What you must remember, though, is that you're not alone in your art, your conjuring. You won't--you can't--do it alone. All you are is the black-marks-maker. You need a partner, a sense-maker, an image-picturer. You need a reader.

A reader--even just one--is no small thing. This person, your reader, is your most important person. This is the only person who can make this thing work, who can come inside, translate the markings, make this thing go.

This is why we must be kind to the reader. We must invite, charm, guide, and surprise. Tantalize. Beguile, lift, and carry. Every page, every word is a thank-you, a secret, a request. It's almost painfully intimate, what the writer feels in typing out the words, what the reader feels in reading them. A conspiracy, a willful surrender, how whole worlds are made.


Patry Francis said...

This may sound totally irrelevant, but I recently heard an attorney giving advice to a client: "Always remember that the judge only knows what you tell him."

Of course, my mind immediately translated that to fiction writing: The reader only knows what we tell him, too. We have to shape it, direct it, color it in and shade it.

I love the way you describe the process. I'll be looking for your novel.

Lorna said...

I'll be looking too. I remember when I first saw Patry's novel on a shelf in a bookstore in Tennessee. I was so awed that i couldn't buy it. Then when I got home to Canada, it wasn't available. I could have ordered it from Amazon but I wanted the experience of walking into a bookstore, searching it out and carrying it to the counter. I have since done that a couple of times as I gift people with it, but I still get a frisson when I think of the first time. That's a part of the process that involves the people you know, even before the first word is taken in.

Susan Woodring said...

Patry, That's a great observation about writing. It reminds me of something Jonathan Dee once said in workshop: Where you don't give the reader a description, he will use his own experiences to fill in the blanks. Like, if I say "basement," my reader will likely picture a basement he knows.

Susan Woodring said...

Lorna, Thank you very much for saying so. You're right--it is exciting and oh, so much fun to find a friend's book on the shelf. There are a few friends' books I always look for when I'm in a bookstore. Next time, I'll have to look for Patry's!

Jessie Carty said...

it amazes me when i run into young writers who don't even think of audience. i mean if you are starting out you are mainly writing for yourself but the minute you think of publishing you have to think about who you are trying to communicate with!

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, I agree. It's fine--in fact, better, I think--to just write for yourself the first draft. But, the deeper you get into revisions, the more you must consider how the piece will connect with the reader