Business Musings: It’s Not About Us
Last week’s blog, “The People in Your Office,” sparked a lot of discussion on writer and reader websites. The comments section deals with both points of view as well.
A lot of the comments have rattled around in my brain since the post went up. I love how Jonathan Moeller summarized one part of it:
I really think that two of the keys for long-term maturity as a writer are 1.) learning to ignore everyone’s opinion about your work but your own, and 2.) doing so without being a jerk about it.
Yeah. Don’t be a jerk. Sometimes easier said than done, but it is soooo important to try.
And then Rachel Leigh Smith’s comment showing the good and bad ways that writers interacted with her when she approached them as a reader, really sparked something for me.
When I teach craft workshops here on the Oregon Coast, my job (as I see it) is to help writers find their own voices. These voices come from who the writers are and the stories they want to tell, not the stories I think they should tell.
That means, at times, that they’ll write stories on topics or subjects I personally loathe, which is why I always bring in other voices, and never say that my opinion is the correct one. It’s not. It’s just one reader’s opinion, no matter how much I’ve published and how many things I’ve edited.
The pushback I sometimes get from writers against revealing themselves in their writing, though, is that someone will recognize them, or see them clearly, or understand them better, or figure out all of their secrets.
Usually, I tell them this story about my own writing.
My Midwestern childhood was superficially perfect, and terrible behind the façade that my parents put up. Both were alcoholics, and both were extremely abusive.
My mother outlived my father by seven years, so she saw much of my early career. And to keep her off my back about calling, visiting, and contacting, I sent her everything I published.
I figured she didn’t read it. She never said anything about reading it. A few years in, I published a novel set on the Oregon Coast, featuring a family with a poisonous matriarch. That character, who came alive as the novel went along, was so clearly my mother that when my nephew read the book, he recognized her immediately and worried that she might read the book (and become furious).
She had read the book. Right after I sent it to her, in fact. It was the only book of mine she ever commented on. She told me that it was the best thing I had ever written and she liked it very much. She repeated that comment to others, as well.
She might have recognized herself, but my sister, who was interacting with our mother regularly, said our mother never said that she had recognized herself. Only that she thought the book superb.
I was stunned by this reaction; I’m still stunned by it.
I have no idea what she liked about the book. I have no idea if she realized the character based on her was the villain. I have no idea if that even mattered to her.
I only know that if I self-censored that book because of my mother’s opinion (made up in my head), I would have walked along a slippery slope of personal self-censorship.
Instead, I learned that no one reads the book you think you’ve written. Everyone combines your storytelling with their understanding of the world and creates their own story (and their own reaction to what they’ve read).
Think about this from your own perspective as a reader. You remember some books because they came along at the right time, and seemed to speak to you directly.
Or you’ve reread a beloved book decades later and realize it was poorly written, or its characters were racist or the story was trite. Then you wished you’d never reread that book, because you wanted to keep the memory of the younger you.
Or you reread a book you loved and discovered even more things to like about it.
Or you shared a book with the person who likes all the same things you do, and for once, you diverged. That person hated the book.
(Dean and I are having this interaction right now over a TV show, The Orville. He likes it. I … don’t. Usually it’s the other way around. I liked Person of Interest, and he…didn’t.)
The words on the page are exactly the same. Your friend read the same text you did. Your older self read the same text that your younger self read.
What changed is the reader. And the experience became different.
Books are a miraculous technology, no matter what form you find them in. The book itself is a delivery method. It takes the story from your head and delivers it into the mind of someone you’ve never met.
New writers have a lot of trouble with that, because they mistake the words on the page—the delivery method—for the story itself. The story exists in the writer’s head, not on the page. Even if the technology/book/words on the page break down, the story remains intact in the writer’s head. The writer simply wasn’t able to communicate it well enough.
Now, think about this from a writer’s perspective. You try very hard to take that story from your mind and place it properly on the page. You learn your craft, you figure out how to replicate what you’re thinking/feeling onto the page. But you never get all of the story down. Ever.
When I write science fiction, I can tell you exactly what the setting looks like in great and intricate detail. I don’t put it all on the page, though, because that would be dull and would get in the way of the story. But each scene—which aren’t scenes to me, but experiences—has so much extra that I decided not to share.
It makes me aware that the story on the page isn’t quite the story in my head and never will be.
But the reader, whoever they are, uses the code I wrote for the story I’m trying to tell, and then reimagines my world and my characters as best that reader can, given what I’ve shared. The reader brings her own life experience and opinions and hopes and dreams and desires to every single story she reads.
And as such, becomes a silent collaborator in the storytelling process.
You writers can’t control the second half of this collaboration. You can’t tell the reader what to like or hate about your book. You can’t tell them how it will impact their lives. You write your story, and put it into the world, and then it becomes something other, something that has a lot less to do with you than you might think.
New writers are afraid that the people they know and love will see their secrets.
Established writers often believe the fans of their work are fans of the person behind the work.
Both assumptions are wrong.
Readers become fans of the work. Readers might like everything a writer publishes, and might say that they’re fans of the writer, but they really mean they’re fans of the writer’s work. Something in that writer’s sensibilities speaks to the reader’s sensibilities. On some level, the stories the writer tells are the story the reader wants to hear.
And that’s it. Your friends and your family know you (or not, depending on how you live your life). Your neighbors have a sense of you.
Your readers don’t know you at all. They know your stories.
This is why so many readers continue reading a series long after the initial writer is gone. The publishing company hires someone else to finish the series, and readers buy the books—because readers are invested in the world and the characters and the story, not because they’re invested in the individual person who wrote the very first book.
Some readers don’t like the switch from one author to another. Other readers don’t mind at all.
Those readers are reading the same series for completely different reasons.
If you remember that readers are the second half of this publishing equation, if you realize that they are co-equal partners in this storytelling experience, you will treat your readers with a lot more respect. And you’ll treat their experiences with more respect.
They come to you for a signature. Or to tell you how they experienced your book. Or why it meant so much to them at a certain period in their life.
Your job is to listen, and to understand as best you can. Value what they’re telling you, because that’s a little bit of feedback from the outside world—the world where your completed story now lives.
Most writers say they want their books to be remembered for hundreds of years. Most of us will never achieve that. And none of us will achieve it for all of our work.
But if you look back historically at the writers who have achieved that, whose stories are still read now, those writers aren’t really famous, except among the literary minded and the highly educated. What gets remembered are the worlds and the characters.
Most readers have no idea what Charles Dickens was like as a person but almost all English-language readers, and many, many TV/movie viewers around the world have heard of Ebenezer Scrooge. Almost no English language speakers have read Goethe, either in the original German or in translation, but millions worldwide have seen his poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in animated form thanks to the Disney film Fantasia (which actually follows the poem pretty well).
Don Quixote, Dracula, Frankenstein (and his monster), all have lives separate from their creators’. Most people haven’t heard of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and I’m certain that the readers of the early 19th century would have though that the writings of both of her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, would have become more famous than that trifle she wrote after a particularly vivid dream.
The reality is that political philosophers are familiar with William Godwin’s work, and scholars know that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women belongs right next to works by Thomas Paine as one of the most influential publications of the Enlightenment. Students of poetry and English literature have read at least one poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (usually—ironically—“Ozymandias”).
But millions of people worldwide have encountered Frankenstein without taking a college course. Movies, music, books, and yes, the novel itself, are a major part of popular literature and popular culture.
Most people know very little about Mary Shelley, but they know her most famous creation, and it truly has a life of its own.
That’s what most writers want.
The work, once you’ve released it into the world, no longer has anything to do with us. We create the work, and then send it on its journey, but we do not control the journey—or the reaction to the work.
Our stories cease to be ours the moment someone else reads them.
Our job is to write and release, to create the best stories we possibly can, and to continue to create the best stories we can.
Since we need to eat, we must manage our businesses and our copyrights, so that we get paid for our work. We can control where it goes and who sees it.
But we cannot control how people will react to it. And if they decide they love our work—whether we love that particular story or not—we need to honor that. And if they hate it, we need to make sure we do not let that hatred influence our future work.
The easiest way to do that is to realize that once the work is in the wild, it is no longer ours. It belongs to everyone who reads it, everyone who reacts to it.
As artists, we need to look forward, not back. We need to concentrate on what we’re creating now, and what we will create in the future. We need to manage our businesses, yes, but we also need to guard our creativity. And one way to do that is to remember that our stories are like children: they do leave the nest, whether we think they should or not. And like children, they live their own lives.
We need to be good parents. We need to recognize that the journey began with us, but it doesn’t end with us. If we’re lucky, our work’s journey will continue long after we’re dead. If we’re lucky, our work will appear in forms we can’t even imagine right now.
If we’re lucky, people will want to visit our worlds and get to know our characters for centuries—and, oh, yeah, occasionally someone will note the name of the author and wonder, for just a brief moment, what she was like. No one will know for certain, of course, but everyone will have an opinion.
And none of those opinions will be anywhere close to the truth.
Clearly, I’m settling in for a long winter’s writing marathon, because I’m thinking about craft these days.
I’m also enjoying the interaction on this blog. The last two posts have come from reader input. I love that. I wouldn’t think of a lot of these topics without your help.
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“Business Musings: It’s Not About Us,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo/alphaspirit.