Sunday, November 7, 2010

Loving the Reader

When I share stories with other people, I'm most afraid that the readers will think the story is not important, or that I'm using false magnitude. My poetry professor told me that I need to love the reader if I want them to listen. This threw me at first, because I often harbor hostile feelings towards my readers. If I write a story about someone who lost a loved one to a drunk driver, I assume I'm writing to people who think drunk driving is okay. I sound very defensive, like the person I'm talking to is not on my side.

I discussed this with a close friend a few days ago, and we got on the topic of non-fiction books - my friend said that when he learns a new topic, he prefers to read books for people in the field rather than those intended for outsiders. I hadn't thought about this before, but introductory books and courses do treat people like outsiders sometimes. I read an introductory guide to acting in high school, and so much of the book was focused on the benefits of acting and how you can use the skills in other areas of life. The book was meant for readers who are deciding whether or not they want to act. As someone who was already immersed in acting, I wasn't interested in reading about why I should get involved. I found the same thing in many of my intro courses - professors tried to convince us of why we should be interested and care about their subjects. But in our seminar classes, it was assumed that we were already interested and already cared a lot about the subject. There was a strong sense of being an insider.

Maybe the way to create intimacy with the reader is to treat them like an insider; write for people who are already in the field instead of introducing them to the field. I don't mean using jargon or assuming knowledge of a given topic; I mean assuming that the reader is interested and cares about the story. I used to assume that understanding came entirely from explaining, that I could make the reader feel anything as long as they understood every detail of what a character had been through and why they acted the way they did. I still think this is true, to an extent, but it is not enough for everyone. When my mom and I watched the movie, Step Up,  my mom didn't feel any empathy for the girl who wanted to join a professional dance company, because her alternative was going to college (even though she didn't want to go to college). I have argued about this a lot with my mom, mainly because it's what I worry about the most in my own writing. I feel like no matter how clear I am, there will be some people who will just think that it's not serious conflict or the character is overreacting.

Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of meeting with an author who has sailed around the world and written about his travels, as well as other topics of interest such as tennis and poker. He sat down with me and walked me through his process from start to finish. I asked him about the issue of readers caring about what you say, and he said it's not something to worry about. A book about poker is for people who want to play poker. It would be silly to worry that people who don't play poker won't read the book. What I got out of this answer at the time was that nonfiction was easier to write, but now I think what this author said might be true in fiction as well. There will always be some people don't feel for that aspiring dancer, but plenty of people like the movie anyway because it was very popular. Some people will never be interested in playing poker, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have books on poker for people who want to learn.

While clarity of a character's history and motivations may be the key to understanding, I need to trust the reader to understand. I need to treat my readers as insiders, as people who are already interested and normally care about stories like the one I'm telling. I do think it is a great achievement to grab a reader who would not normally care about your story, but actually aiming the story towards them makes the narration sound defensive. It is important to grab the reader's attention and maintain their interest throughout the story, but confidence comes from accepting that every single person will not think your story is important, no matter what you do. And that's okay because I am committed to readers do care. If I treat all my readers like they care, then maybe they will.