Shaun Levin

What “The Reader” Wants

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Why do people come to writing workshops? For fun, for the company, to learn some techniques, tools of the trade. But they also come because they can’t do it on their own. There’s something about the process that feels unmanageable or unknown. We all need reassurance, someone to tell us we can do it. After fifteen years of teaching creative writing, I still love going to writing workshops – to learn new things, to see what other writers are doing. I like reading my work out loud. I think that is another reason people come, so that they can be heard, so that they can have an audience. One of the hardest things to manage when you’re writing on your own is that for a lot of the time, you have no audience, you’re working in a void. You are your only audience. You are the stage and the performer and the cheering crowd. How does one get used to that? There’s something unnatural about it. We’re not supposed to play on our own for so many hours in the day, to create just for ourselves. But for long stretches of the writing process you’re on your own. You have to forget your “audience”. You will create your best work when you write only for yourself.

Don’t bring the reader into the process! The “reader” (or what we think the reader is) can be a damaging factor if brought into the equation, especially in a workshop situation. We all have our own readers in mind, the reader we think of, but the reader I think of and the one you think of, the one anyone thinks of, is never the same. What would it be like to exclude talk of “the reader” from the workshop, and to talk only about the story or the book that wants to be written, the book that you as the writer want to write, the book that wants to come out, the book that must come out, and if we can locate that book and trust ourselves to write it then we have to trust that there will be an audience for it.

I don’t like it when writers in a workshop talk about “the reader”. I think it’s a way of not talking about the book they want to write, a way of avoiding looking into themselves, as if the answer is in what the reader wants. And what if we do create an image of the reader, bring that “reader” into consciousness, make that reader explicit, then would it make it easier to write, would it be a way of focusing the voice?

An exercise: Write about who your ideal reader is? Where are they from, what do they like reading, what do they know, what do they want to learn? And then write a story especially for them. Think about what type of reader you are… write about it, write about the type of reader you are… what stories to you love? crave? If you had to be given the ideal book to read, what would it be? Then write it.

It sometimes seems that people talk about the reader in a workshop because they think they’re doing somethingwrong, that if they could just work out what the reader wants then they’d write that very book. I say: what is the book you want to write?

Note to self. To read more about: What motivates people to write, what is the compulsion to tell a story, the desire to be heard. What is the compulsion for story? Does everyone want to tell a story? Does everyone want their story to be heard? Is it a human compulsion to tell a story, to tell our story, to tell one’s story, the story of one’s tribe… And is that compulsion the same no matter what story we tell… some want to tell their story through fiction, some through autobiography.

Be open to the story that can change. The antidote to trauma is letting in another story, a story that is not your own.


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