Monday, November 10, 2008

Picture a reader--in memoriam

You've probably heard the advice that to give your writing some focus and energy you should picture a particular reader and imagine you're talking to them. Good advice in general I suppose, but during the drafting stage of my book, I found it a distraction. My main goal was just completing the draft, and the words were flowing out easily enough without any kind of framing device. I decided to postpone using that tool until some stage in the revision.

And I think the time has come. I did some freewriting and brainstorming to think about what reader I should picture. My wife was one obvious choice, but that didn't feel right because she is too close. It would be too easy for me to take shortcuts since I know she'll be able to connect the dots.

I wanted it to be a smart, critical reader, a lover of literary fiction, but not an academic (which most of my social circle is made up of.) And someone I knew well, so that I could imagine talking to them. I could imagine them hearing it.

I also thought about focusing in on someone who would be interested in the thematic argument of the book. I figure the ultimate target audience, the most interested real reader, would be someone personally moved by the story because it shone a light on on their own experiences in some way. Or, less directly, on the experiences of someone they are intimate with.

I think I've found the perfect person by all those criteria, and it has an additional benefit of feeling like a kind of tribute. I'm going to picture a friend of mine who died a few years ago--an old friend from college who I meet during orientation weekend. We had the same first class together and hung out with the literary magazine crowd together and argue about the school plays. Like me she struggled for many years afterward trying to reconcile practical/financial needs and the desire to create art. She was generous and considerate and passionate, but also tough about art. Engaged, but receptive and open, as well as demanding.

And we were on the same wavelength about literature and other arts. We used to correspond via the postal service in true 20th-century style, sharing as much as we could with each other about music and cinema and theater. She was my last correspondent--I doubt that I've received a piece of personal mail except a hallmark card or one of those family Christmas newsletters since she died.

I dug out all the letters from her over the weekend and read them to remind myself of the voice we used with each other--to remind myself of the sound of her listening. And I dug out a bunch of photographs and taped some next to my desk (She was head-turningly beautiful.) Now, when I'm editing, line-by-line, I take a little glance to the right and back to the sentence and plunge in. I hope it helps me generate the energy I felt whenever I wrote to her, and I hope it helps me redeem the longing to create literature that we shared.

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