by Pari Noskin Taichert
If it did not seem crazy to talk to oneself, there is not a day when I would not be heard growling at myself, "Confounded fool." Montaigne
I’ve got a question for you: Which came first, the need to write or the need to be read?
After Alex’s and Mike’s wonderful posts this weekend, I’ve been thinking again about writing as a business. That’s sure been the biggest lesson for me during these last four years. All of my fantasies — those Technicolor visions of multi-million-dollar contracts, fans swooning at my feet, international critical acclaim and interviews on Charlie Rose have been eclipsed by the sheer day-to-dayness of sustaining a novelist’s career.
In Repetitive Virginity, I wrote about the fact that when each new book comes out, I fall into the same wide-eyed traps: the fantasies, the giddiness and anxiety, the deep awareness of wanting my work to be read by an ever-growing audience.
This is a good thing. It reminds me of the blessing of not remembering the physical pain of childbirth. Without that amnesia, population growth would be at a standstill.
Without repetitive literary virginity, I’m certain far fewer books would be written.
We need to hold on to some of our Panglossian world views — our faith in the rightness of outcomes — to continue writing for audience.
Sometimes, I wonder how I got into this purposeful track in the first place. When did writing for audience overtake the simple act of writing for personal pleasure? I know these aren’t mutually exclusive, but, for me, the experience of writing now has a different quality.
I struggle with creating novels because of my internal judges and editors (yes, there are more than one of each). But, the sheer act of putting words on paper, finding a new story, meeting characters for the first time and having all of it come together into a viable manuscript is an absolute rush. Seeing that manuscript become a book is heaven. Meeting readers is bliss.
I also love the research. Last week, I took the kids down to Las Cruces to poke around for my fourth Sasha Solomon book. It was one of those blessed trips wehre everything fell into place. I met the right people, had opportunities to see things I never expected to be able to see and ate some fine food. I even met a woman at the farmer’s market there who had read my books and was a true, dumbstruck fan. Talk about a great and unexpected ego boost.
But, most of time as a novelist is spent in front of the computer talking to myself, getting frustrated because I don’t think the story is moving well, feeling irritated that my first drafts read like lousy Dick and Janes.
At this point in my career, I do factor in different considerations than I did when I was younger and wrote only for myself. I CARE about what other people think, how my words might affect them. That doesn’t mean I try to write to other people’s expectations — my books are far too quirky for that — but I want my works to work for strangers rather than for my own self-indulgence.
What madness is this?
Why write for an audience?
If you don’t have answers for those questions, how about these?
What fantasies did you harbor before you started writing fiction?
What fantasies sustain you now?
Readers: What’s your take on this craziness?
“Repetitive virginity”-heh! I love it.
Why do it? I suspect most of us can’t help it. We’ve got stories like puppies scratching at the door to be let out, and if we don’t, bad things are gonna happen.
I’m glad there are artists who can select and arrange words in original and novel ways. They provide me with hours of enjoyment — both in the story told and in the wonderful turns of phrase that put a smile on my soul as well as my face.
J.D.,I was going to refer to the old chicken-and-the-egg question at the beginning of my post. When I was little and started writing, it was to impress my mom. Then I pushed into journaling and from there to short stories, poetry and songs. Slowly, the urge for an audience overtook the mere pleasure of writing for self. I think it happened far earlier than I realize.
B.G.,What a beautiful comment. Many thanks.
I think writing is a way of purging my mind of dangerous thoughts.
There is no mental relief quite like cranking out 2000 words. It keeps me from wanting to strangle people.
Writing as therapy, yeah.
My family will send me to my office if I seem too impatient or easily irritated.
There’s something disarming in being so predictable.
I never thought of an audience when I first started writing, Pari. It was all for me … for a love of words … for something on a blank page that used to be just in my mind.
After selling that first book though, concerns about what “others” would think crept in. It made writing harder.
I’d like to go back to those days when the only person I was worried about pleasing was myself.
I think it does make the writing more difficult, Louise.
I can still remember the glee of writing my first long poem when I was six. It felt so marvelous — the rhyming, the act of creation — but just a few minutes after completing it, I wanted my mother to read it, too.
Sheesh. I was worried about an audience even before I knew the word.
What an interesting question, Pari – when did it become about writing for readers?
I came from the performance and production end of things and the only writing I did for a long time was journaling, which was always private. And as a screenwriter you’re not thinking about readers in the same way that an author does, so the whole reader/author relationship is still very new to me.
But I can’t say even now that I’m sitting here writing thinking of the readers at all. What I do feel is an intense obligation to do justice to my characters and to tell their stories in the most complete and satisfyiing way I can. I think about how to convey thigs to “the reader” – a generalized person – and am always thinking about how to give that reader the full experience of the story. But it still feels to me that the first and maybe only priority is to do justice to the characters and the world, and if they live, then I’m taking care of the reader too.
Great perspective, Alex.
This is why I asked the questions in the first place. I’m still not sure about my own approach and thought process while writing — or when consciousness of the reader comes in — and that’s why I put it out to this group.
My husband commented recently that it was a damned good thing we live in present times–I’d have probably been burned at the stake as a possessed woman, especially the way I talk about characters as if they’re as real as my own flesh-and-blood children. I connect to the world through story.
One of the first times I finally handed a work of fiction to a friend, I drove the whopping ten minutes back to my home. Time dragged as I paced, had multiple heart attacks, and finally, not being able to stand it any longer, called her and said, “Please, for the love of God, what do you think?”
“Are you nuts?”
“I’m over here with my head in the oven, ready to light the match.”
“It’s been less than thirty minutes. This is 400 pages long. It might take me a bit longer to actually read it. Especially when I have to stop for dinner.”
“You’re enjoying torturing me, aren’t you?”
“Go write something else. It’ll distract you.”
I become very attached to the characters too – more focused on uncovering their story than on the reader, although I will and do work on the craft aspect so what I want to say gets across clearly.
Hah! Toni, your story made me laugh.
Now, the question I have is did you think of that reader WHILE you were writing? Or did the concern only come once you’d finished?
Chicken or the egg?
Billie,I was waiting for your take on this.
It’s slight insanity, the relationship we have with our characters and how real they become to us.
After more than 160 pages of writing the Darnda manuscript, I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on her. It’s fun to develop someone new that I’ll know as deeply as Sasha.
Creativity is the *bomb*!
You went to Las Cruces? Oh please tell me you didn’t eat at The Kiva, or I will slowly and surely die of putrid green envy and longing.
I kinda miss the food in Cruces, in case you hadn’t noticed.
However, back on topic, as a reader, I’m glad you think of us, however I find that many of the best novels are beings that were born because their authors had no choice but to write them.
That being said, the few small things I’ve written I have trouble showing to anyone because they’re so much a part of me. Kind of like being nervous (read petrified to total non-movement) the first time your kid goes to school. So my baby writings are sitting safely at home where I can keep an eye on them. I’m astounded at the bravery each of you has in setting your books out to the public, and I’m forever grateful that you do!
i think i wrote to be read, not becaause of fame reasons, but validation reasons. It didn’t mean anything if it didn’t appear in print.
ps: i’m still waiting for charlie rose to call me back. i’d kill to be interviewed by him.
Fran,I didn’t eat at the Kiva. Don’t even know where it is, darn it! I think I might post about Las Cruces a little next week. I’ve sure got some glorious pix.
I think I write first because of the characters and the stories I want to explore, but in the writing — in the process — I’ve got an eye toward how the words will be interpreted.
Oh, I don’t know . . .
Simon,I was joking about Charlie Rose in a way. He has fascinating guests, but have you noticed how often he interrupts them or doesn’t let them speak? It’s strange to me and doesn’t feel like a conversation.
My dream television interviewer would be Bill Moyers. He really listens.
Pari, I honestly didn’t think about her until I had agreed to let her read it. I can’t let myself think about someone potentially reading it–I’d freeze up. I came from such a family of storytellers, that I was far more comfortable telling a story than writing it. When you tell it, you can watch your audience’s response and make minute adjustments in delivery (if needed) or edit down for time or respond to questions… can’t do any of that with the book, and having to trust that it’s all there, in the form, and it’s done, finished, no more tinkering? makes me kinda nuts.
Pari, I find this whole topic fascinating and I wanted to write more.
I was distracted today b/c our local hay guy is probably not going to get a second cutting of hay this year (he normally gets 3) and we just bought his last 76 bales. He only got maybe half of what he normally gets in his first cutting b/c of a very late frost we had in the spring. There is rumor that a hay shortage will hit hard here mid-winter and I’m scrambling to get some storage space organized here so we can go ahead and buy up some timothy from upstate NY. Sigh. We can store about 100 bales total in our current space. We need 350 or so to get us through the winter. I’ve got a couple of options in mind now so I feel better.
And why is it I also feel better having written that out just now??? I think those of us who write no matter what do it b/c it’s how we process life. Madness be damned. We have to write it all out. Somewhere!
For all Charlie Rose’s faults (for there are a few), I still thing he’s a fun interviewer… It’s like hanging out with an absent-minded professor.
Pari, remind me of this post in six months. I’m still writing for me, but that’s my own naivete, I’m afraid.