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On the kindness and, one hopes, the prescience of one’s early readers

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Every time I lock myself in this room and try to put something to paper, my mind reels.

Why? Why do I do this to myself?

Why the hell, after an exhausting day in the salt mines of [insert your day job here], do I come home and seek to force myself on the page?

When it’s sunny outside. Or when I should be playing video games and bonding with my teenaged son. Or finishing the floor tile in back hall that I started last year.

If you’re a writer, you already know why. You’ll also have your own very personal reasons, of course, but, ultimately, it’s a compulsion thing. You can’t help yourself. It’s kind of like masturb . . . uhmm . . . I mean, like when you open that big bag of potato chips promising to only eat one. Maybe two or three, tops. And then proceed to eat the who bag. You simply can’t stop. The only thing harder than writing — and this only goes to prove the universe’s twisted sense of irony — is not writing.

What makes it all worthwhile though, and I suppose this is probably true for any endeavour, are those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction. Like Hannibal from the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together!” And for writers there’s that extra little jolt of accomplishment that comes when, every now and then, we learn that we have actually made some sort of connection with our readers. That we’ve gained another “Follower” on our blog or won a story competition or had something published — all things contingent upon there being actual human beings on the other end of our words with whom we’ve somehow made a connection.

It’s surprising how minuscule such tidbits of positive feedback can be and still provide huge spurts of motivation. Even over relatively long periods of time, and especially for those of us writers who don’t yet, and very well may never have, an honest-to-goodness “fan base.”

I remember my first job out of university. I worked for a PR and advertising firm and spent the better part of a year organizing a national conference for a large professional association. During the conference itself I barely slept for about 72 hours. The day after it was over I returned to my desk to find a cream-coloured envelope there with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a crisp $100 bill and a handwritten note from the company president thanking me for my diligence in putting together such a successful event. Before then I barely had the sense that the president even knew who I was, but everything about that card was just right. It was immediate enough after the event that there was no way it could be construed as an afterthought. It contained cash, rather than a company cheque, which further personalized the monetary token — and it was a nice crisp $100 at that, obviously not something he had simply reached into his pocket and pulled out. And the amount, while not staggering, wasn’t a pittance (at least to me) — it was just enough to show gratitude without being vulgar. He had made — to my mind — an authentic connection with me. After that, I would have done almost anything for the guy.

But when writers get positive feedback from a reader, — when someone’s actually crawled into your psyche and experienced your words along with you, and is able to communicate to you that they have gained something by the experience — now there’s a rush! And you hoard these experiences as a bulwark against the bleakness of the daily writing grind. Squirreling them away to be re-ingested at 2am sittings when you’re on the fifth edit of a particularly troublesome piece of crap that has you considering ditching writing altogether in favour of doing something a little less painful like, maybe, gouging your eyeballs out with a butter knife.

Yet this unique behavioural feedback loop only really works if those folks from whom you’re receiving praise don’t have some previous vested interest in your success. Thumbs up from Mom does’t count — she’s a ringer. And spouses are doubly problematic. Part of them wants to be your champion no matter what you undertake. The other part, however, may very well want to scream at you to stop wasting your time playing make believe and actually finish the tiling in the back hall. Both, I would argue, are equally valid responses. And, with this insight, it may often be better to simply leave this particular keg untapped when you’re looking for reassurance of your emerging, literary genius.

Of course there are always exceptions to the spousal rule. A friend from my writing group, for example, earned some high praise from his wife indeed, after the performance of a play he had written a few years ago, when she informed him, “I thought it was great. By the end I had completely forgotten you had written it.” Okay, maybe a little bit backhanded, but still on the positive side of the ledger nonetheless. (Another friend of mine offered a similar “compliment” on my short story, “Anhalter,” that I posted last month: “Oh, that was yours? I thought it was just a story you stumbled upon by someone else and posted it to your blog ‘cause you thought it was interesting. I liked it. It’s didn’t sound anything like your usual stuff.” Uhmm, thanks. I think.)

But the real breakthroughs come when disinterested (or, at least, mostly disinterested) third parties are able to “pick up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes they’re even able to discern what you’ve done better than you are yourself. I remember when I originally read “Saturday Afternoon” (which I posted here last week) to my writing group. I was a little worried because the several friends I had shown it to previously were completely confounded by it: “Uhmm, it’s . . . good? I had to read it a couple of times. I’m not quite sure I get it. There was a plane crash, right?” But one of my writing group colleagues immediately exposed something I didn’t even understand — consciously — about the piece until she mentioned it: “I like it. Engaging imagery. It’s really more like poetry, this story, isn’t it.” YES! YES! That was it! The imagery, the cadence of the climactic paragraph reeling and arching with the rhythm of the poor, pre-destined pinball. Someone “Got it!” and, in doing so, had even helped me to see my own work more clearly. This insight kept me writing for a least another six months.

Then, last year, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a novel that had suddenly taken up residence in my mind. I had seen it as a vision: The literary love child of Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Yes, more vampires, but not really. Trust me!) I’m enthralled with this first chapter. I think it’s evocative and atmospheric and richly character driven. Somehow I haven’t had the time and / or energy to block out the rest of the book yet, but I know it’s going to be a winner if I’m ever able to — stop blogging long enough to — get back to it.

I think they liked it at writers’ group, but I recently got some first-hand reader feedback from the sister of a friend of mine to whom I had e-mailed an e-pub copy so she could read on her i-Pad:

OH MY STARS !!! When I got to the part where he thought Gretel was skinning a baby I almost passed out. Your description made it feel like I was standing in the kitchen and I had goosebumps . . . . I need more of that story.

I’m all subscribed and am getting your blogs.

Keep that shit up. It’s good stuff and I enjoy reading it.

Manna from heaven!

And a ringing enough endorsement that I imagine I’ll be “keeping this shit up” for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone trips over the edge of the hardwood transition in the back hall and I simply can’t put off finishing the floor tile any longer.

Photo credit: University of Warwick (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/learning_english/leap/reading/)

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3 Comments

  1. Tom Marshall says:

    What an enjoyable post to read, and I’m not even talking about the one paragraph which my wife laughed at. I’m in agreement with “the sister of a friend . . . I need more of that story.” Whether it’s your blog or your story I think the goods are there and make for interesting reading. As we’ve hammered out before, the real challenge is just getting people’s attention to read what we’ve worked so hard to write. We blog, we write, we enter contests, and still we wait for the recognition. I listened to a Toby Keith song (no comments please) and some have that ring of putting in one’s time. Let’s be honest, like Stephen King said, “They can’t live forever” (meaning the famous authors of his day). Hmmm. Well let’s just leave it at that. Though it would be fun to have Steve King pop in for a writing group session and show us his rejection letter folder.

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    “…those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction.” That’s what writing is like, at least for me. When we read someone else’s work, we almost always see only the finished product. We don’t see all the false starts, the trail and error, and the ton of junk that person had to crank out in order to produce an ounce of goodness. But every once in a while, that little burst of joy happens, and usually just in time.

    Can’t you just put up a sign in the back hall? Construction zone. Uneven floor ahead. Please watch your step.

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