communityofwords

Welcome, reader. Though I don’t always acknowledge you, I know you are there, just a few of you, and I want to say how very happy I am that you are reading. You are a big and growing part of why I write.

Some days, it may not seem that way. I feel the same way. Some days, I have something I want to say, a beef to get off my chest, a secret I’ve been longing to confess. Sometimes, it may seem to you that I’m just writing for myself. I do that; it’s true.

But most of the time, when I write that way, I leave it in my journal, or don’t actually put it on paper or in a post at all. Usually, when I write in this space or any other space where I think people are reading, I at least think of you, acknowledge your existence to myself, if not to you.

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In her recent Tweetspeak Poetry article, “Ten Surprising Secrets to Make Your Book Go Viral,” Jennifer Dukes Lee talks about her recent successful book launch. She talks about things like her launch team and hiring a publicist. She made lists of everyone she knew and sent them notes; we would expect a first-time book author to do that kind of work. But her first bit of advice, the piece of advice that is always #1 as she reiterated in the comments section, is to “love your reader.”

“Ask yourself on every page of your manuscript, ‘How am I serving the reader here?’ You are, presumably, writing a book to entertain, engage, amuse, benefit, guide or enlighten a reader. Even if the book is about you, it isn’t only about you. It’s also – perhaps even primarily– about your reader, even if you never address him directly.”

But if you want to know the truth, I am not always sure who you are, why you come here, what you hope you will find.

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I recently wrote an essay for Curator Magazine based on Wallace Stegner’s advice to a young writer to ignore the reader. “Except for vaguely imagining him and hoping he is there, ignore [the reader], do not write what you think he would like. Write what you like,” Stegner wrote.

In some ways, his counsel relieved me for a few days. Since I don’t know who you are, keeping you in mind is sometimes confusing. I imagine what you want from me and just as I begin to write for you, I remember that there are many of you, at least those who tell me you read, and I know each one of you comes expecting something different. If I write with you in mind, will it muddy what I say, how I say it? So I try to stay true to me, to write only what I am thinking, feeling, reading, hoping. In other words, I write what I like, as Stegner suggests.

But often it feels lonely, isolating to write that way. I have a journal to write what only I like. When I come to this space, or other places where I know I will encounter readers, I need something more. I need the pressure of your presence to move me to write something more or better; I need the encouragement you offer to remind me why I come to this work day after day. And mostly, I need the connection with you in your suffering and your joys. When we rub against each other this way, when we find community in words, I become more human, more able to see the shadows of mystery and the echoes of redemption.

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Stegner knew there was more to understand about our readers, too. That’s why he pushed his former student to ask better questions about her her relationship with her writing and her audience.

“Why bother to make contact with kindred spirits you never see and may never hear from, who perhaps do not even exist except in your hopes?” Stegner asks the young writer. “Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won’t pay you a living wage for it?”

His answer: “You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished, and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.”

That’s all I think either of us can hope for – you, my reader, and me, your writer: solidarity over these little stories I peck out.

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This morning, I read an article by a publisher who recently discovered that the goal of his publishing house is no longer to produce books. “It’s a tactic we use to achieve our actual goal.”

The thing they are really interested in is to connecting writers and readers. It’s that simple. And within that goal, book publishing actually diminishes in importance on the list of “literary experiences” they have been designing and creating.

“We think of our role as catalyst and connector driving various kinds of cultural and community engagement,” writes Chris Fischbach, publisher at Coffee House Press. “Sometimes that takes a solid and sellable form, and sometimes it’s performative, electronic, participatory, or even culinary. This is the kind of publishing we’re interested in, and what we think literature, and publishing, needs more of.”

I don’t know what that looks like for us, writer and reader, but it’s the kind of innovation that leaves me breathless and dreaming.

I love words. And to be honest, I love books, too. But I also like blog posts and online articles and print magazines and literary journals and PDF downloads and videos and podcasts and plays and movies. And if I love you, my reader, as I say I do, then connecting with you over words may not end up always looking like a book with a spine that you order from Amazon. And I’m ok with that.

As long as you are.

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WORD COUNT: 1028

Photo by Kate Ter Haar, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License; design by Charity Singleton Craig.