The Insecure Writers Support Group meets the first Wednesday of every month (unless it's doomsday, in which case we meet under tiny umbrellas because what the heck else are we going to do?), and...guess what day it is?
No, it is not Blernsday. (The day we play blernsball, naturally.)
I'm going to talk about the Curse of the Writer/Reader, which is to say writers who also happen to be active readers and the blurring of the thought processes between these two modes. Are they in fact separate at all?
I just don't know. It's probably easy to assume, because obviously it's the same brain processing both experiences, but what if the way you write is in fact vastly different from the way you read? As readers, it's easy (or should be) to tell when you're engaged on a critical level. You know when something is or isn't working for you. But is it the same when you're writing? That's the real trick. I like to think I do. I do go back and fix and/or totally rewrite some parts of a manuscript, but often I consider the act of altering a story a betrayal of that story. If I start changing things too much, the whole integrity of it begins to fall apart. To a certain extent, once you start writing something, it starts to take over. To go back and question the decisions you began making is in effect putting yourself back in control. But is that really what you should be doing?
When I change things in editing, it's usually a beginning or ending, to make it better align with what the story became rather than how I originally envisioned it. The writer in me trusts my instincts. But what does the reader think? When I've gone back and read my own material, years after the fact, I've still been pretty satisfied. The way my memory works, I wouldn't be able to remember every little detail, where it is or sometimes even what it is, so when I've gotten feedback asking me about certain elements, I have to scratch my head a little. But, especially when I went back and reread the Monorama collection a few months back (and this is not to try and sell you on the book or toot my own horn) but I really was engaged as a reader. They say we write what we want to read. (In the case of poor writing, I hate to think of what those people like to read.) That's what I try to do. I take bits of inspiration from the stuff I most enjoy, and mix them with my own thoughts.
There's always the chance I'm completely delusional. I guess the term "beta reader" has come into fashion, but at any rate it's the idea of having test audiences. I always kind of questioned that phenomenon. The feedback from these people really is no different from whatever the writer can expect from any audience. If you depend on these people, you really have to trust their instincts. And, I assume, doubt your own. It's one thing to find out you had a blind spot about something, but at a certain point...you're also asking for co-writers, basically.
One of my favorite anecdotes from college was learning T.S. Eliot completely rewrote "The Waste Land" after receiving feedback from Ezra Pound. First off, "Waste Land" is an acknowledged work of genius. But to think that Eliot only arrived at it after Pound's observations opens a whole can of worms. On the one hand, obviously Eliot always had the poem in him. On the other, the finished work becomes as much Pound's achievement as Eliot's. The thing that Eliot wrote was basically something else entirely. It boggles me, it really does, and has haunted me for more than a decade.
Is that the sort of thing all great works require? For someone else to chisel it, basically, out of the block, like Michelangelo contemplating his next masterpiece?
There are all sorts of cautionary tales of famous writers who, left to their own devices, deliver bloated would-be great new works (Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch comes to mind). But there's also someone like Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick to considerable apathy after initial great success with far less accomplished material. Someone who would winnow the tale of Captain Ahab down to something more conventional would be robbing history of one of literature's great achievements.
So that's what I mean by the Curse. It's a constant struggle for me, and I think it ought to be one for every writer. It's another sign I don't trust you as one if you don't have these doubts. Sometimes I'll start writing a story a couple of times before I feel confident that I've discovered the proper entry. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe writing needs a guiding hand, needs a critic outside of one's own head, because maybe the reader really is different from the writer.