When I delivered the first draft of my memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building, to my editor, Elaine Katzenberg, at City Lights Publishers, she responded with this astute comment: “Sometimes there is a difference between what a writer needs to say and what a reader needs to hear.” As a teacher, I’ve passed along this wisdom to scores of students, not only memoirists but poets and fiction writers as well.
The impulse to write often arises from a profound need—to express something about which we feel deeply, to share an experience that has been imprinted on our psyche, to make sense of something that has troubled us, to communicate something we want others to understand. We often struggle to find the words to capture these powerful ideas and sentiments, and when we’ve finally gotten it down on paper, we may feel our job is done. After all, the driving need that ignited the process for us has been fulfilled.
But as much as we may have labored to produce that initial draft, our work is not complete. Unless our intention is to write a journal, for which the audience is no one but ourselves, the next step is to figure out how to bring the work alive for the reader. The reader, who starts out as a stranger to the work and is drawn into intimacy with the work by encountering characters who come alive on the page, action that is riveting, themes that expand one’s ideas about the world, settings that one can enter and experience palpably.
I have great respect for journal keeping; it is a potent tool for self-discovery and self-comfort. When you write in your journal, everything you write is perfect, a perfect expression of yourself to yourself. But if you are wanting to engage other readers, you have to take them into consideration.
The reader doesn’t know what you know. They may not care about what you care about. They may not share your experience or your worldview. The reader wants to know what’s in it for them: what are they going to learn or gain or experience if they invest their time in your work? What will they find out about themselves from reading you?
One of the values of the writing workshop is that you get to find out what other people are getting from your work. Do they perceive the same meaning you want them to? Are there things that confuse them? Have you explained too much or too little? Have you enlisted their attention and have you managed to keep it? Have you gotten them to care?
We have to write that first draft that gratifies all our personal needs. But then we have to write the drafts that open up the work and allow the readers in.
When I submitted the first draft of my memoir to my editor at City Lights, her response let me know I had not yet managed to build the bridge to my reader. In subsequent drafts, I was able to pare away those things that were so personal only I cared about them, and to expand on things that would be of interest to someone who hadn’t lived the experience. Gently, she taught me the difference between what I needed to say and what a reader needed to hear, the difference between expression and communication.
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada.