In a recent blog post, I wrote about an On Being interview with cello virtuoso Yo Yo Ma, who described himself as a “host” as he performs.
“When I’m on stage, all of you that are in the hall are my guests,” he said. “I’m the host of a wonderful party. You’re all my guests, because I have the floor.”
HIs comment, and the joy with which he expressed it, got me thinking about all kinds of artists who welcome readers or viewers or listeners to their work, who serve as hosts of their own wonderful party. It’s easy to see how performing artists might fill this role, operating as they do in such close proximity to their audience. But what about those of us who do our creative work in solitude, who may never encounter others engaged with our art? And particularly writers: how do we who work in words and ideas, tapped out on keyboards or scribbled on paper, extend hospitality to our readers?
Make Room In Your Own Life
We start by making room in our own lives.
From the first time I heard the simple definition, I never thought of hospitality the same. The speaker at a spiritual retreat I attended said that hospitality is just making room in your life for others. When I think of the writing life, I think this is an important point, too: if you’re going to write for others then you need to make room for them in your writing.
What does that mean practically? At the very least, I think it means making room in our lives to let ideas germinate, to let our writing spring from a deep well, to give ourselves the time to write. In a sense, each time we sit down at the keyboard with the thought of writing something to share, we are making room for others. We also can make room by publishing our work in places that will encourage readers to interact: blogs, online magazines, print magazines, even books that offer space for the reader to engage and think and grow.
Leave the Lights On
Then, of course, we have to leave the lights on.
It’s one thing to show up to a friend’s house unannounced and have them add an extra place setting when they invite you to dinner. It’s another thing to come invited and still have to be added to the table setting, like they weren’t actually expecting you.
When my husband and I took a road trip last summer to visit family, his aunt and uncle warmly invited us to stay with them. But when bad weather and traffic meant we arrived after midnight, we wondered if they’d still be expecting us. After all, when we realized the delay, we’d offered to get a hotel. But they insisted we come on over even at the late hour, and when we pulled up to the house, the light was on and they were waiting for us. That’s being a great host!
In the same way, as writers, we do well to make our readers feel like we were expecting them. We define our terms, we offer context, we anticipate—and respond to—objections. We also pay attention to how well we explain things, how many words we use to do so, and how broadly we choose our examples. And if we have readers from other genders, races, ethnicities, religions, countries, political persuasions, or economic backgrounds (and except in very specific instances we should probably assume so), have we helped them feel they were expected with language that is inclusive, examples that are relatable, and personal details that are authentic?
Does this mean we water down our prose or write to the least common denominator? Of course not. Does it mean giving extra thought to what and how we write so that readers will know we were expecting them? Absolutely.
Help Readers Get Around
Next, we need to help our guests get around.
Occasionally, I host out-of-town colleagues or clients for work-related meetings and events. When I do, I usually make a list of restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, and pharmacies, along with a simple map to each, just in case my guests need to find their way when I’m not around. Of course a smartphone could provide the same information, but a smartphone isn’t a host. It doesn’t have the personal connection with store owners or know about the special on Wednesdays.
In the same way, writers have the opportunity to help readers get around in their work with a few simple tools. A basic one is to write with a logical structure that provides details and information readers need when they need it. Then, depending on the project, an easy-to-navigate website, a well-documented index, easy-to-follow subheadings, and even thoughtfully written headlines or titles can be just what a reader needs to get around. Of course, we writers are rarely there as our guests make their way through our words. So any help we can offer to help them find their way is time and effort well spent.
Make them Feel at Home
Finally, we need to help our readers feel at home.
Yo-Yo Ma’s greater point in describing himself as a host was not just about highlighting all the ways an artist or a writer prepares for his audience, but also how he treats them when things go badly. He talked about Julia Child, who was famous for messing things up in her cooking show, and how an entire chicken might fall on the floor, but it didn’t ruffle her. She just kept looking at the camera and talking, just kept engaging with her audience.
And here’s how Yo-Yo Ma talked about that dynamic: “So, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, this happened. Boom!’ But, actually, that’s not why we’re here, to watch the bad things that happened. So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose; the greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all?”
And I often wonder if this isn’t the most important part of the writing life that so many of us get completely wrong. We try to be authentic by sharing intimate details of our lives, but we miss the opportunity to connect personally with our readers by being too precious when it comes to failure and rejection.
What if Julia Child had responded to the dropped chicken by berating herself on camera? By blaming the crew or the whole television industry? By deciding that maybe she didn’t have what it takes to be a television chef? Not only would it have threatened her career, it would have broken the connection she had with her audience. Sure, there was a camera, a television set, and a million different audio and video signals separating Julia from those watching. But the way she looked into the camera and talked to people: she was clearly the host of her television set kitchen. And come what may, she never lost that sense of hospitality.
I’ve done this as a host in my own home, apologizing so profusely for a late meal or a burnt entree that I miss out on a chance to really commune with my guests. I’ve made the whole evening about me, even if the attention is negative. And it’s tempting to do the same with my writing career: to let one book rejection or one Twitter attack or one lackluster review keep me from continuing on with my readers. But that’s not the kind of host I want to be. I don’t want to send everyone home just because the roast burned. I want to be the person who laughs it off and orders a pizza instead, so I can quickly get back to the wonderful party I’m having with friends.
It’s not easy imagining ourselves as host of a wonderful party when we never actually interact with the guests, but by making room for readers, leaving the light on, helping them get around, and making them feel at home, hopefully this writing party we’re having will never end.
What about you? As a writer, how do you play host to your readers? And if you aren’t a writer, just tell me more about the ways you invite people into your life. I’d love to hear your ideas.