where the writers are
Taking Characters to a Reading.
Hammer-1.jpg

There's something paradoxical about the process that happens after a book comes out.  Writing is a private, isolated, often lonely profession.  No one knows that a passage was punctuated by two trips to the refrigerator, that one section flowed, that another was rewritten five times and resulted in a breakthrough.  And yet after a book or a story is finished, it is visible to at least part of the world: a trusted first reader, a writers group, readers one doesn't know--or public readings. Readers are parts of this process that most mirror the act of writing.  One never knows exactly when or if they are reading. One rarely meets them, except perhaps in a letter. In this sense, it's an invisible meeting between two strangers.  Just as a reader never knows what the writer was doing when writing the book, the writer never meets the reader.  So many writers reached me when, as a kid or a teenager, I read sprawled out on my bed.  (Lois Lenski, who wrote amazing books for children, will never know how a story about a kid traveling with her family in the dust bowl is a story I still remember, how her shame about her family's exposure to the world reverberated with more sophisticated books.)

For this writer,  this feels like the best destination for a book or a story: The privacy of the writer is matched by the privacy of the reader, who re-creates the story in the theater of her or his imagination. And if this feels like the most natural journey for a book, a reading can often feel like the least natural one because it's so public.  And not one person--but a whole audience--are the receivers of a book.  Some readings turn out to be outrageous and delightful performances, like Literary Death Match. Others turn out to be the most intimate conversations (Elizabeth Rosner did this in a recent reading of her book, Blue Nude.) 

The point is--one never knows. And in this sense, a reading requires the same kind of willingness to enter the unknown as the writing itself. Indeed, that is one of the most trenchant mirrors of the process.

There is, though, one thing about readings that are constant for writers of fiction:  The characters remain the same. Granted, they may be received differently.  But if the writer has made friends with them at all, then they are the constants.   

In the book I'm reading from these days, there are a lot of characters, and I notice that they seem to talk to me  before a reading.  They clamor to be heard.  They have opinions.  And because so many of these characters have been cloistered in an underground mine, they are happy to be traveling above ground, whether to a bar in the Mission, or a museum in Los Angeles. 

And I, the writer (like all writers, walking for so long by myself, suddenly aware of cars and headlights) am happy to have them with me on the journey.