Right up front I’m going to say that every writer hopes to write stories, poems, novels, scripts, or non-fiction that emotionally engages their readers. It would be ridiculously disingenuous to suggest otherwise. I personally hope that whatever I write resonates with at least someone out there and hits some shared chord of truth.
If you’re a writer, you’re a reader first. As a reader the quickest way to eject me out of your work and abandon it is to make me aware that you’re trying to manipulate my emotions. To make me conscious of your words purposely attempting to steer my feelings and thoughts.
When I was ten years old I watched “Somewhere in Time” and was so moved I wrote a bunch of superiorly inferior tortured emotional poems inspired by the way that movie made me feel. I had the feels so bad I could have led a flotilla with my imaginary tears. I worked that lofty emotion to the bone with bad poems. That was the moment I first realized that writing could engage you so deeply that it could make you feel things for imaginary characters you’d never even felt in real life. Which, come on, is serious black magic!
Let’s take a moment to thank me for not subjecting any of you to my lofty early attempts to make people’s hearts heave with the sweeping love that only fiction knows. Because I still have that diary, my friends, I could accost you with ten year old endless love. But I’m kinder than that.
That sense of power that makes a person want to write is natural to feel in the early stages of writing. You want to make people bleed inside – scream – sigh – become better – believe that love is worth dying for – devolve into spiritless pools of darkness when the candy’s gone. Reading powerful poems, novels, stories, and non-fiction can change your perspective, your direction, your life.
But this is just the larval stage of writing. You realize the power of writing and are drunk with the possibilities. At some point you have to evolve into the next instar stage which is forgetting all about the potential readers in order to serve the narrative for the narrative’s sake. You have to dedicate yourself to developing the skill to tell a story with nuance, in layers. You have to be willing to shove ice-picks into the marrow of truth to see what emerges under the microscope of human experience.
In a totally unrelated analogy, readers are witnesses to a story and whether you’re the prosecuter or defender of the story – resist the temptation to lead the witness. Just tell the story.
A writer’s best asset is to be in touch with the magic of a life of reading. To remember all the ways my favorite books have made me think, grow, dream, escape, and sometimes make me exquisitely uncomfortable. The best books didn’t bludgeon me with words that indicated I should be sad or mad or angry or happy. The stories unfolded and I was free to experience them organically, not always as others (and authors) might have expected.
Readers can tell when you’re trying too hard or when you haven’t tried hard enough. They can tell when you didn’t bother researching things and when you’ve become pedantic about details to a smackable degree. They know when you’re trying to lead them and know when you’re too lost to lead the narrative down a wide open street.
Mind your words. Mine your words.
You’ll never make me cry for trying, but if you care more about what your characters are experiencing than what I’m experiencing as a reader – I just might forget you’re there at all. That’s your truest mission (and mine) as a writer.
Whether you’re writing literature, fantasy, fiction, humor, non-fiction, horror, romance, or mystery – make your work truthful and authentic. Everything else will follow.