Wallace Stegner, one of the great writers and teachers of writing of the second half of the last century, had this to say about the experience of having one’s writing published:
The man who publishes a book is a man with a sending set but no receiver, broadcasting messages into space without ever knowing whether they have reached any ears. He writes his name and corks it into a bottle that he sets afloat on the ocean in the hope that some pen pal, somewhere, on whatever unpredictable coast, will find it. He drops his feather into the Grand Canyon and stands expectantly, waiting for the crash.*
I recently had a miniature version of this experience when my novel was published by a small independent press. Though not strictly autobiographical, it’s deeply personal (what fiction writing isn’t, one might ask), and to have it out in even the tiny portion of the world that its modest print run might reach was unnerving. Or, as described by a more accomplished novelist friend when I brought this up to her, “Oh, you mean like taking your clothes off in public.” Yep, pretty much like that. To which I’d only add: like taking your clothes off in public to a deafening silence.
Actually, the feather I dropped into the Grand Canyon, the small bottle I set afloat on the ocean, did get some direct responses. There was the blunt, immensely generous phone call from an in-law, telling me that she was a very smart woman (which I already knew), and this was a very good book (which I didn’t). There was the member of a book club who read a passage from the novel with tears in her eyes, and then clasped it to her breast. (Nothing more a writer could hope for than that.) There was the neighbor who told me, in just so many words, that the ending was good, but the beginning was bad (which I’d take over the reverse any day). There were some compliments from the guy who’s narrating the audiobook (out next month, I hasten to add), which I took to be sincere since he already had the job.
But mostly there was silence.
The good thing about silence is that you can interpret it any way you want. You can adopt Stegner’s stance of philosophical acceptance that reading — particularly reading fiction — is an inherently private act, and that silence is the natural response to something so intimate. “The natural audience of the novelist is not a crowd,” he said, “but single individuals in armchairs, and they are absolutely faceless.”* You can assume, correctly, that people have a lot more going on in their lives than would allow them to read your book as soon as it appears, and it may take them a few months — or forever— to get around to it. You can think that silence is a form of respectful deference. You can even choose to believe that your book had such an impact that your readers are at a loss for words.
On the other hand, you can assume that your readers are so embarrassed for you that the less said, the better. Or conclude that they’re following their mothers’ advice that if one can’t say anything nice, one shouldn’t say anything at all. Or that they were so bored by the first ten pages that they put the thing aside, to be revisited, oh, next decade sometime. Or that there just weren’t that many readers, period.
One of the odder feelings to arise from all this is when someone you know well announces that she is about to begin reading your book. My response is never “Great! Hope you like it!” but rather “Uh-oh.” As in sheer apprehension, as if she’d said “I’m about to view the video where you take your clothes off in public.” Of course I want her to, for why else did I write the damn thing, and yet I don’t; safer to be seen fully and carefully clothed.
And my further instinct, odder still, is to go and grab the book, open it to a random page, and read it with that person’s eyes, with that person’s brain. Of course, this is a complete fictional construct of its own, based entirely on my at best partial knowledge of the person, my completely subjective imagining of her sensibilities and her reactions to what I’d written. It can’t possibly be done, yet I do it for a few minutes, till the fanciful personality lens through which I’m reading slips, and I forget who I’m supposed to be reading like, and revert to the simpler authorial me. Go with God, my about-to-start reader. Hope you like it. Hope I look okay naked.
Over the years of writing and revising the book, I vacillated between pride and shame over it, between believing it was good enough to withstand the light of day, and believing that it was an extended exercise in self-delusion and self-indulgence, better confined to an audience of one. The fidelity with which I’d tried to reflect real life in it meant that it would almost certainly be misinterpreted as autobiographical and perhaps even picked over for clues as to which characters stood for whom in the real world. And sure enough, one friend recently wanted to follow up on one of the scenes in the book, where the protagonist visits his ex-wife shortly after her second husband has died. The friend wanted to hear from me further about how all that went, and I had to explain to him that the scene and the circumstances surrounding it had been completely invented, had never happened in real life, and hopefully never would. I could tell he was a little disappointed, and I didn’t know whether to be flattered by the implicit compliment to my writing or appalled that what I’d written had been so easily assumed to be a transcript of my personal history.
Of course, there’s a simple solution to all these problems and anxieties: don’t write for public consumption (as I stubbornly continue to do here). If you must write, do so only for yourself, which is the only audience you’re ever sure of anyway, and keep the product in a nice little folder on your computer to be visited every now and then by you alone, like the doting curator of your own sensibilities that you are.
Writing — or at least what we call “creative” writing — is at its heart a narcissistic act, rooted in the belief that our thoughts and feelings are worthy of expression in the first place, and that their expression can find its best form in words upon a page. It’s a short step from there to the belief that others would love to read what we’ve written, and would even pay to do so. In vastly more cases than not, this belief is simply misplaced. This doesn’t mean we should stop writing (a real writer probably couldn’t even if he or she wanted to), but it does mean, first, that we should be tougher self-editors. And we should write, always, as though others were watching, as though we really were ready to take our clothes off in public.
*From “The Writer’s Audience,” Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction (Penguin Books, 2002).