Finding the Confidence

I heard Joan Didion — my idol, my ideal reader, my legendary mother — speak at the New York Public Library back in November on the release of her last book Blue Nights, and then later, as I do, scoured the interwebs for more interviews and articles, finally landing upon an interview with David Ulin at the Los Angeles Public Library, in which (I think it was this one, it might have been the one from New York) in which Joan talked about getting the confidence back, or how you find your way back into a novel or long piece after so many behind you, or more specifically, who gives you the authority.  She answered, “The reader.”

Since I started taking Rachel Sherman’s fiction writing workshop — which I highly recommend — I’ve been thinking about the reader as the authority vs. the writer as creator and guide.  Or more specifically, how that problematic interaction both reveals an opportunity for greatness and a craggy space for confusion and terror on the part of the writer.  It’s a big question — who is in charge?

Ultimately, of course, the choice rests in the hands of the reader — if they are bored, they will put the book down, and the writer loses.  But you can do anything else to a reader — infuriate them, make them cry, make them laugh, give them an erection, question their values — but you can not bore them.  Rachel often reminds us, if our work has become too opaque or, frankly, incomprehensible, “Choose where you want the reader to work.”  I like this because it describes exactly what a good book does — invite the reader to take an active role in the experience of the story.

Somewhere along the way of the last few months, with thanks to the workshop, but most likely to bunches of other things, I felt in charge again.  Or, rather: I remembered how the exchange works. The reader gives you the authority and then the writer respects that gift.  Enough to give the reader something meaningful but not easy; beautiful but not pretty; messy but not untidy.  That may sound simple, or not separate ideas, but anyone who is a creative person, especially a writer, more specifically me, will understand that.

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