On Writing

Whose Story is It, Anyway?

Who owns a story? Is it the writer who develops a raw idea into prose for others to read? Is it the reader who reads the story carefully or skims it in a packed subway or staggers through the words when it’s 1:49 in the morning and she can’t fall asleep?

I am a writer. I would like to think that it’s the writer who owns the story, who has nurtured the smallest flutter of possibility into robust, beautiful prose that will stride off into the world and change lives.
I know better. I can splay wild-eyed wonders on the page and share it with others. I can also grin and grimace through glowing reviews from loving friends to slams from readers who don’t know me, but do know that they hate my words — or worst of all, the deep velvet of no reaction.
A story belongs to the reader. It is for the reader that we wrestle our dark angels to the ground. For the reader, we attend workshops and conferences and apply ourselves to mastering a complex, beautiful craft.
The story starts with us, but belongs to the reader. He brings his life experiences and view of the world to the words he reads and tells himself the story that he most needs to hear. We provide a means for someone to live other lives and to consider other possibilities for themselves.
Writers own a story from the time that we discover a sparkling nugget through our shaping it into a nuanced, powerful story. Our part involves wrestling with dark angels. Our role is to craft words into enjoyable prose and if we’re lucky, beauty may result.
A story is not any version of reality. We are best when we don’t bother to approximate jumbled spasms of real life. My dog comes from a line that includes a world champion who boasted six elaborate names in the show ring, but who was called Elvis at home. Awe-inspiring feats of plotting, historical accuracy, and character development may impress writer types, but do nothing for the story or its reader. We’re making art here — don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.
Tell the story that moves the reader. Your drafts may be sensationally smart and well-expressed, but your story is not complete until someone else feels something. Revel in your tears, laughter, and delight as you write — and get it down on the page.
Feel for the reader. The reader gives you their time in exchange for your story. Give them all you’ve got so that they get to consider a different view, laugh or gasp or cry, and ultimately feel it was worth it.
A story starts with the writer, but belongs to the reader.

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