My short, wide-knuckled fingers type hard, pounding out ideas and feelings and the scrap of red that showed through her coat on the day she walked out of our classroom for the last time. Then, those same fingers grasp at the pages, try to control not just the hands but the eyes and the synapses behind the skull of him, that guy who decided to give my words a try. I want to exert as much control over him as I do the words when I wrote them. I want him to see what I intended, what I meant; I want him to see like me.
But I cannot control him. I cannot make him read the way I want him to. I cannot make him like my work. I cannot make him buy my book. The reader is beyond my control.
And that’s hard because I care so much about what I have said – the people on the pages, the stories woven out of air. It’s hard too because a lot of me is wrapped up and wafted into those words – the real, sincere honest part of me and that striving ego, too. But no matter how much of me is out there, I cannot go with those words and shape them. They are now his. They belong to the reader.
Wise people have been telling me this for years, writers who know what it is to be misunderstood, to be overlooked, to be discarded with a bargain sticker or – worse – trash.
I still find it hard to understand – no, hard to accept – that my work has nothing to do with how the reader takes my words. No, my work is to do the very best I can with the story I have to tell and then to move on to the next thing because what I can control is my writing – the words themselves, the way I practice with them – tossing them up, watching them spin, catching them like glass, and laying them into line. That I can control. Everything else is beyond me.
Still, sometimes, it seems easier to focus on the reaction to my work than on the work itself. Because the work is hard, and it doesn’t let me play victim. And because when people ignore or attack something you love, you want to shout and defend. But I am learning that these reactions will not help – me or my work.
So on days when I want to grip with these small hands and press my fingerprints into the flesh of that kind woman who bought my book, I remember this.
- the words I use.
- the order in which I lay them.
- the punctuation I set around them.
- the white space that cushions or exposes them.
- the research that I do.
- the thinking that I develop.
- the places I drop my attention in the story.
- the ways I allow writing and the stories I tell to shape me and make me a better person.
I do not control:
- whether an agent takes my work.
- whether a publisher takes my work.
- whether someone buys my work.
- whether someone reads my work.
- the way someone reads my work.
- the way someone talks about my work.
- the reviews someone posts.
- the sales figures.
I can do things to encourage people to read and buy and appreciate what I have done, and I can learn from what didn’t get the result I wanted. But what other human beings actually do – that is beyond me, and I am learning – slowly, so slowly – to loosen my grip on those things and take a deep breath as the words float away to where they need to be. I am learning – slowly, so slowly -to just write the next thing as best I can with all of me. I’m learning – slowly, so slowly – that as long as my fingers are trying to grab the things I need to let go, they are not free to lay out the new thing that dances before me.
I am learning to live with open hands.
What about you? Do you struggle with trying to control readers, agents, publishers and their reactions? How do you battle that desire to control what you cannot?