Monday, July 11, 2011

Are Readers Connecting With Your Story Or Their Own?

Happy Monday, everyone!

I'm still tired after my great evening last night at The New Short Fiction Series. Thank you to Dian Kobayashi, David Bickford, Kimiko Gelman, Matthew Lange, and especially Sally Shore for bringing my stories to life! And thanks to all my friends and family who took time to come and see the show.

I sat in the back of the room last night while the reading was taking place so that I could try to get a sense of how the audience was reacting to my stories. Though I didn't expect it, two of the most memorable parts of the evening didn't have anything to do with my stories, at least not totally.

Two rows in front of where I was sitting sat a couple of women whom I didn't know. I watched them as the mistress of the show, Sally Shore, went up and read my bio. Then, because at least half the audience were people I knew, the room filled with loud and cheery applause. One of the women turned to the other one and shrugged.

I thought to myself, "Well, okay, she definitely isn't biased in my favor!"

The stories began, and the first to readings went beautifully. This woman whom I did not know clapped when everyone else did. I didn't get much more of a response from her than that. Then, the third story began. David Bickford sat in front of the audience and said, "I'm waiting for my dogs to die."

The woman turned to her companion. She pointed to herself. Throughout that short story, she kept turning to her companion, nodding, and I think she connected with something in the story. But was it my story she was connecting to? What I think happened was that the story she heard was only serving to remind her of her own story, one she lived herself. I saw my work differently as a result of that. For a moment, it wasn't my job to actually depict anything. Rather, what I was doing was helping the reader to tap into memories they already had, the stories of themselves.

After the show, the performers, some friends, and my brother went out for drinks and snacks. I sat next to my brother, and the two of us had a rare bonding moment. See, he knows me better than almost anyone else on the planet. He knew the sources of several of the stories in my book. What he told me was something I didn't expect. He said that after reading one of my stories, he got so angry that he had to put the book down and step away for a while. I thought he was mad at me--as did some of the other people at the table. But actually he was mad at what had been done to me. He was mad at the people who did it.

Because of the moment, because of the sudden emotion, I reminded him that my stories were fictional. I said that not everything in the book was accurate in the sense that I was recording something that actually happened. I dramatize things. They're just stories.

Naturally, this came as no surprise to him, and he told me he understood that. But the thing that had made him angry wasn't the story itself. Again, it was what the story reminded him of. It brought back his own stories about our lives.

On this blog, I've mentioned before that some writers convince me that they're psychic. I've felt this strongly with Dostoevsky and Woolf, and a bit with Updike. What I'm realizing is that the psychic connection isn't really the process of a reader seeing what the writer has created. Not necessarily. It can instead be the writer making the reader see what they've already experienced.

I've felt a little behind with everything lately, and this week I'm actually in the middle of a move. On my to do list is the announcement of winners from my Spread the Word contest and a post on how to give a good public reading with advice from Sally Shore. Stay tuned!


  1. I'm glad the reading went so well! I think that is so cool about the way your audience reacted, the way the connected to your stories on a deeper level than just imagine the story you're telling them playing out in their heads. And it's true - it happens all the time. That's when, IMO, you know you've written something good. When the reader connects within themselves, not just believing it to be something to read that they enjoy. I know the books I remember are the ones that echo things in my own life. The ones I forget are the ones to which I don't connect beneath the surface.

  2. Stephen King talks about that connection between the writer and the read in On Writing. Your first-hand experience with it this weekend takes it to a different level, it's great that you had the vantage point to really capture that moment.

  3. I'm glad your reading went well.

    The subject of author intention vs reader perception has always been an interesting one to me. I believe that one reason books and stories resonate with people is because it does create a relationship with the readers through their own experiences. Yet as an author I can't worry about that, I can only write what I hope and know is true and pray that it touches someone.

  4. April, I'm honestly not sure what makes that connection work. For me it feels good when it happens, and it also makes me feel like I've disappeared in some ways. The story functions on its own at that point, and it's interesting to see how it plays with others.

    Rick, I read On Writing, but all I can remember of it is a great story about King going to see the ear doctor. But I feel like I learned something new this weekend. Or, rather, I understand something better as a result of this weekend. Cool new picture!

    S.P., that's a really good point that we writers can't worry about it. I'm still not that convinced that we writers can do anything about it even if we wanted to, unless maybe we were writing for specific people, which I sometimes do. It's just neat when it happens.

  5. Davin, thank you so much for this post. I think this struck a chord with me and is so important to remember when one is reading criticism, feedback, and reviews. Once we put our work out there, it's completely out of our hands how people will react to it - and it's completely stupid of us to think that our work's quality rests on those reactions. I keep reminding myself of this every day.

  6. About seven years ago, I let a friend of mine read one of my stories. She liked it but her main reaction was to be reminded of a specific time in her life that had nothing to do with the events of my story; there was a strange tangential relationship that only was valid for her. There's no way to predict these sorts of resonances with readers, and I don't know if these moments are really useful to us as writers, but it's certainly good to know that we have absolutely no control over the reading process and we should be prepared to be surprised by what happens.

    I'm glad last night was great!

  7. Thanks for writing this out. You've really captured my own experience of reading and the experience which I always envision readers having when I'm writing.

    It's why I always get confused when people are depressed by my stories, because I think of them as arenas for the reader to engage with certain thoughts and emotions.

    I actually have to explicitly remind myself that not everyone reads that one, and some folks will be responding to the narrative more as a spectator of events. I don't read that way, and I'm not sure how -- so it sort of fascinates me.

  8. I think I got off-track there, but I'm not sure. Shouldn't be responding to complex blog posts while frazzled at work.

  9. "It can instead be the writer making the reader see what they've already experienced."

    Yes! This is why I read fiction. Novels that remind me/help/make me see what I've already experienced are my favorite.

  10. The English Teacher cannot remain silent on this one.
    The lady connecting with your story on her own personal level was doing what "educational reading experts" (of which I am not one) claim everyone should do. Their term is "background knowledge."
    Now, I am a holdout for getting certified in teaching reading. (I have 4 other degrees and certifications, if you actually care.) But I teach English in a low-income area and we have many struggling readers. I have had to learn some of the techniques and terminology used in reading classes so I can reinforce them in English class.
    According to current "experts" in this area, good readers always attempt to connect what we're reading to things we already know, but poor readers struggle with it. Therefore, I am quite used to asking my students what they already know about a topic or what a story reminds them of. Any poor reader who behaved as you described the lady in your post would be praised for "making a connection" in the world of junior high.
    So, as you can see, I "made a connection" to your blog post today. It might not have been the one you intended, but I will remember your post longer than those where I have no connection with it. :)

  11. Sigh.
    Typo. Please omit the last two words of my comment. They were unnecessary and grammatically confusing.


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