Many years ago I wrote a post on my blog about being a child and accidentally learning how to do guided visualization. I described the exercise I invented—a quiet room in a little house, a closet overflowing with boxes containing my worries. My job was to stack the boxes that contained my anxiety.
“Once the worries were shut away,” I wrote. “I was free to leave the little one-room house. Outside was a garden, neat and vaguely hostile, with a path leading away back to my bed, where I could finally sleep.”
I did this exercise, I wrote, because I was eight years old and scared of multiplication. I wrote about the paper plate clocks hung over the third grade chalkboard, stickers marking our progress through the times tables.
I wrote about watching “the other clocks fill up with stickers while mine perched forlornly on the wall, steadfastly advertising my inadequacy.”
To finish the entry I typed that I wrote it because “I was remembering the imaginary room and its cold, quiet stillness.”
Then I hit publish and I walked away.
When I came back to my computer that evening the people in my comments were talking about their own experience with multiplication. Nobody mentioned the visualization, which surprised me. It was, after all, why I wrote the piece. It’s how I came up with the post title (“Mind Control”) and how I began and how I ended the entry.
When I reread it with their comments in mind, I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job of conveying the power of that room but I’d done a great job of conveying a kid’s anxiety at staring down the times tables. I also began to understand that struggling with multiplication is a universal experience and so even if I hadn’t done a very good job it was a story that would immediately speak to the reader. On the other hand, visualization—something so personal and specific—was a much harder sell.
My piece was completely upside down and lopsided and it was indeed about multiplication for the reader even if it wasn’t for me, the writer.
When I was in college and wearing a lot of black and doing a lot of scowling, I was also taking a lot of creative writing classes. Back then if people didn’t understand what I was saying I figured it was a comprehension problem. I figured I was the expert in what I was writing because I was the one writing it. When people in my class would say they didn’t understand what I was trying to say, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss their criticism. I was a writer; they were mere readers.
It took me a while to realize that for writers who want to be read, the reader is pretty darn important. Writing is one thing and being read is another. Writing is solitary, an act of discovery, and the joy of both process and product. Reading is another creative process that happens away from me. Once I set my writing free to be read it exists to evoke a response and an experience in someone else. The reader brings her own history, her own assumptions and her own prejudices to my work.
My words are static and they only come to life when my readers take them in. In other words, I may be the expert on what I meant to say but my readers are the experts on what I actually said.
Writing an essay or a story is a little bit like having a child. While that baby is in your arms you can protect it but when you send it out into the world it will evoke responses that you cannot predict and that you will not always understand. No matter how carefully we write we cannot control that space beyond our keyboards.
Stories live on out there in the world without their authors to stand by and try to explain their intention. Our stories go on to be a part of other people’s lives in ways we can’t imagine. The best we can do is to write as well as we can and trust our readers to their experience, even when they don’t get it exactly the way we wanted them to.
Most of the magic—the magic in the communion between writer and reader—happens without us. We do the work, we let it go and we let the reader have her way with it.
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