Thank You, and Goodnight

Applause.

It isn’t something a writer seeks. Or, at least, it isn’t something a sane writer anticipates. Ours is, most often, a very solitary craft. Few of us will ever stand in front of a throbbing throng of rabid fans and accept, graciously I hope, their thunderous applause.

But, occasionally, some of us stand in a small room or a bookstore or, perhaps, a quarter-filled auditorium where we receive some feedback for our work.

Similarly, when I teach, I do not anticipate an ovation at the end of a class, even in a class where the students have chosen to be there and are happy to be so.

Today, though, I received a warm ovation from the students in my Reading as a Writer class. We had spent Fridays together for the last eight weeks, studying Graham Greene’s classic, The End of the Affair. As class ended today—ten or fifteen minutes late, as usual, because I have been unable to limit myself to the allotted class time—I wished the students well, told them I hoped they had enjoyed our time together, and reiterated just how much fun I had had leading the class.

And, they applauded.

It is a nice feeling. I understand, a little, of why actors and athletes and performing artists do what they do.

Applause is a different kind of feedback than the writer gets used to. There is always something wrong with a written work, so sending even a very strong story or novel to our trusted first-readers is a risk. We have to gird our loins, so to speak, and wait for the hammer blows. Sending stories to editors for consideration most-often ends with a form letter rejection. When we get a personal rejection, most of us do a happy little dance that we can’t explain to non-writers. (“Yes, I’m shaking my groove thing because someone said ‘no’ to me in a kinder, more considerate way than most people reject me!”) Even when my stories are published, I rarely hear any positive feedback, and certainly no one has ever made an audio recording of themselves applauding my work.

I appreciate the feedback I received today from those kind and gracious students.

After they had all left, I stayed in the classroom and erased the whiteboard and gathered my things and sat, for just a moment, in the now-empty room, almost as one does when leaving a long-time home for the final time. It is silly, I know.

Later today, a dear friend asked me, “Do you miss it already?” She knew I had really enjoyed teaching this particular class, and she already knew the answer before she asked it. As, good reader, do you.

Reading as a Writer

New York City.

We were watching a movie last night, (Man on a Ledge, not that it matters for the purposes of this blog) and it occurred to me that other than a few places I’ve lived, I’ve probably seen more of New York City than I have of any other place on the earth. Movies and TV shows and documentaries and books and books of photos. Boxes of comics books. Maps and satellite images in the time after 9/11 when I was attempting to understand a bit more of the geography. All told, I’ve seen hundreds of hours of exposure to NYC.

Reading as a writer is like learning the ins and outs of an unfamiliar city: it takes a focused, systematic effort to first deconstruct, then apply the knowledge gained.

And I have no real idea how New York works.

I know there are boroughs, but I don’t have a clue how they relate to each other. I don’t know where any of the main streets are compared to other main streets. I can’t comprehend (without calling on my Google Lifeline) where the Met is in relation to Yankee Stadium compared to the location of the Empire State Building. I know there is a complicated transit system, and it might as well be the arterial system of the fetal pig we dissected in High School. Can someone walk from Times Square to Central Park?

All of the exposure I’ve had to New York, and I really know very, very little. I have the big picture: The city that never sleeps, the crowds, the attitudes, postage-stamp-sized apartments, traffic, noise, excitement, and the gritty reality of most residents contrasted with the decadence and opulence of the privileged elite.

But plop me down anywhere in the city, and I’ll quickly be relying on the good graces of some native (or, at least, resident) to find my way around.

What occurred to me, as I considered my relationship with a place I’ve never visited, was this is an analogy for the difference between reading for pleasure and reading as a writer.

I’ve been a casual observer of New York. It has served my purposes to just know the basic details of the city. I’ve never had to really study a map or consult the chart of transit line spaghetti to figure out how to get where I need to be by the time I need to be there.

And that is how we often read books. We get the big picture. We enjoy it, or not. We don’t lay the story in front of us like a map and try to understand how we could, if necessary, get from that opening scene with the house on fire to that final scene where the arsonist is frozen to death.

But, when we read as a writer, we dig in deeper. We try to figure out how the dialogue helps not only flesh out the characters, but builds tension. We attempt to figure out all the places where the author gave us hints about the protagonist’s spouse’s true nature, we pick apart images and scenes looking for foreshadowing and theme. We deconstruct the book so that we can better understand how this successful author accomplished her work, and hopefully find ways to improve our own writing.