I was invited to talk to a book club in Greyton this week, held at the wonderful Maånskyñ on Oak Street. As I’d be speaking to bookish people, it seemed like the appropriate time to explore the co-created space between writers and readers. I thought I’d share the talk here.
The question writers often get asked is, ‘When did you start writing?’. But the real question is, ‘When did you start storytelling?’. Writing is the act, storytelling is the creation. And we are, in reality, all storytellers just as we are all creators.
From the moment we differentiate as individuals from the god-kings called mother and father we start sense-making the world around us, organising it with language, categorising experiences, interpreting data … and we start the act of unconscious creation when we take that data we’ve interpreted, and respond or react to the world around us … we then start telling stories, to ourselves and others, stories about who we are, what we’re capable of, what other people are and what they can or can’t do, we have stories about our family, our tribe, our friends.
We communicate, we manipulate, we lie and support … and all of this, for better and worse, is unconscious … and so, for better and worse, the world around us is shaped to our expectations of it.
And then we start creating consciously … we create our worlds by our thoughts and our deeds. We think, imagine, visualize and then we manifest something from nothing. We cook, we paint, we create excel spreadsheets, businesses, families, humans, relationships, buildings, homes, clothes … collectives … every day every one of us is creating and all the while, the stories we tell ourselves and others about our heritage, our beliefs, our tribe, who we are and what we’re capable of, continues to the spin the world around us ….
Some storytellers and creators become writers and they make sense of the world in the way that makes sense to them: through words, organising thoughts through naming to organise reality.
Some of these writer storytellers become journalists and they write about the politics and events that shape our society, some writer storytellers make sense of the world through the lens of history, poetry, mathematics, academic inquiry, they write textbooks, become poets, self-help thought leaders changing the way they and others see the world…
And then some turn to fiction and the storytelling that makes sense of this world and the human condition through the other worlds entirely. Some of these writers make movies, write books, produce stage plays, pen songs…
Writing is simply the tool by which this kind of storyteller tells their story.
I started storytelling and creating worlds and characters that were not of my world when I was very small. I would stand in front of the mirror and act out different characters in different scenes, making myself cry for this sad story, making myself scared for that story or giddy with excitement … the impulse to do so powerful and so clear and so completely unfiltered, I think without meaning to it’s how I learned from a very young age to trust the character that was showing up and let them speak.
Then I started writing the stories down and journaling. Later, I’d write features for community magazines and newspapers, but in all of this, I still had no sense of audience, no sense of the reader. That only happened when I wrote my first blog in 2006.
This was back in the heady early social internet days, and I remember the genuine surprise and delight when people first commented on a post. This surprise and delight met me again when I wrote my first column for Women24 and the first comments from complete strangers outside the safety net of the blogging community started streaming in.
The call and response that’s so baked into our bite-size social experience these days wasn’t there yet and it was thrilling for a new writer on the cusp of new technology to be so close, so in touch, with something writers were traditionally very cut off from – the audience for their work.
After that moment, I began building something of a relationship with people who followed me and my posts and that was that. At that time, I was known publicly as Dorothy Black, and it was under this pseudonym that I published my first non-fiction book. I went into that experience so naive with so much to learn about the interplay between a writer, the text, and the reader. I still wasn’t quite getting it.
Looking back, I think three particular realisations brought this interplay into stark focus for me.
The first was with the publication of my first book as Dorothy Black and the big surprise that the people who consume work online are not the same people who buy books … suddenly I was reminded that there are readers and seekers (it was a non-fiction, self-help book after all) who are an entirely separate species of human to those who consume content online.
The second was with a small literary festival I initiated in 2020. Little Local Launches Book Festival ran over the course of two weekends and aimed to give authors who had the terrible misfortune of having their books published during lockdown a small, in-person launch (all of these had been cancelled naturally, becoming online ‘events’, and bookstores wouldn’t again open for launches until 2022).
Given the circumstances, I knew the gathering would be intimate with very small numbers and that those who would arrive would be dedicated readers wanting to connect with authors. So, I was tickled when I came across a quote by John Cheever, an American novelist and short story writer, (and this is really one of my favourite author quotes these days): ‘I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.’
The storyteller creates, but they need an audience to tell the story to.
There is a practicality attached to this, of course. Without readers your book doesn’t sell and if you don’t sell, it because harder, practically and emotionally, to find the motivation to keep investing the time and energy on it. This was the third realisation about the importance of the reader and one I came face to face with my first novel, The Fulcrum.
But there was something altogether more textured and complex that Cheever’s quote alluded to and, while I listened to Mark Winkler and Patricia Schonstein discuss their novels, it slowly dawned on me what that was.
As they spoke about the creation of their respective stories, I sat imagining the landscapes, creating faces for their characters, conjuring up scenes as they read … I looked around me and knew that everyone else in that room was doing the exact same thing and suddenly I understood fully, consciously, the shared space between writer and reader.
Reading is not like watching a film or a TV series. In that space you are spectator only, emotionally engaged as you are directed to be, the full range and landscape of the story projected at you and signposted by casting, camera, lighting, music … You can sit back, switch off and let the images flood over you. And I love this space. But it is very passive.
Reading a book, however, is a one hundred percent active space, from choosing to read a book, to the act of physically buying it – online or hard copy – to making the time and investing the energy to read it. And then, when you read, the active engagement continues.
You draw on the clay of your own imagination and creation, your own experiences and relationships to visualize and animate the world that you are reading. In this way, the story becomes an intimate experience of co-creation between you and the writer. It’s why you can invest so deeply in the characters, why you can pine for the world you leave when you finish that last line – because you helped create that world and those characters for yourself.
The other day I enjoyed what was possibly the worst, most ill-conceived corporate gift I have ever received, but there was a wonderful treasure on the first page: a quote by Neil Gaiman: ‘A book is a dream you hold in your hands.’
The writer enters the dreamspace, brings the story to life, animating it, finding meaning in it … when the dream ends as all dreams must, the story is completed and the writer hands the dream over to the reader where it becomes their dreamscape, animated once again, alive, meaningful – but this time filled with the faces and landscapes, the emotional and psychic energy of a whole new sort.
I read a post by George Saunders the other day where he said something about writing with the reader in mind. Caring for the reader even. Being kind to their experience of their reading of your work.
I must admit that I didn’t think one jot about the reader when I wrote The Fulcrum. I was too scared and excited, insecure and inexperienced, too curious and overwhelmed by what was unfolding to think of the other. (Tom and I had more than a few arguments about my insistence to keep foreign languages in.) I certainly didn’t consider writing it in a way that it would sit easily on a shelf somewhere as this or that genre, and that’s hurt me. After all, you can’t find your readers if they don’t know where to find you.
Looking back, the only reader I thought about was myself and what kind of book I like to read. In a way, I was that little girl making stories come to life in the mirror again. It might not have made it easy for me or others, but it was enough to create the world for myself, to be in the dream for myself … and now it’s a dream living with others.
When I get feedback from readers about which characters they loved or hated, what they think each looks like, which parts of the story were most alive for them, what I’m really hearing is the sound of the story creating itself again and again in different dreamscapes, living and breathing, in the mind’s eye of each reader that allows that creation into their lives, that willingly gives of their energy to animate it again. It’s magic and I’m so grateful to be part of it.
Thank you for your time.