word craft


Inviting People to Come In

Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stew­art [pho­to cred­it: Gage Skid­more, Wikipedia]

I was watch­ing the evening TV news today, catch­ing up on the lat­est dai­ly hor­rors, when along came an inter­view with the British actor Patrick Stew­art. Most folks know of him because of his long-stand­ing star­ring role in the Star Trek fran­chise, as well as his work in the X‑Men. How­ev­er, now 83, he has had a long life as a stage and film actor, with par­tic­u­lar suc­cess in clas­sic British plays. The inter­view I watched was focused on Stewart’s just-pub­lished mem­oir, Mak­ing it So. 

I nev­er saw him on the stage, and if I watched any of those Star Trek episodes with my kids, I have no mem­o­ry of it. In any case, I was being with my boys, not real­ly watch­ing him. 

This inter­view, how­ev­er, ranged over his full career, how he became an actor — when still a boy — and the way act­ing became part of his per­son­al life, not so much as an exten­sion, as ful­fill­ment. At one point, talk­ing about act­ing, he said, 

“I want­ed to bring the audi­ence into our world. I was nev­er inter­est­ed in thrust­ing out, but just invit­ing peo­ple to come in and share what we were experiencing.” 

That made me sit up, replay the inter­view, and get the tran­script. Because his words — “invit­ing peo­ple to come in” — which were about act­ing — said some­thing very impor­tant, I think, about writ­ing fiction. 

Ear­li­er that day, work­ing on a new book, what I was try­ing to do was the same thing — draw­ing the poten­tial read­er into the expe­ri­ence I was unfolding. 

The book, the sto­ry I was cre­at­ing, was not about me, but about invent­ed (but real­is­tic) peo­ple, their lives, their evo­lu­tion, their emo­tions, and their expe­ri­ence. I was try­ing to write in such a way that the read­er could come into those lives. 

Too often we talk about writ­ing as if it is self-expres­sion, deal­ing with our own demons or delights. No doubt that is part of it. But per­haps more impor­tant­ly, writ­ing can pro­vide new expe­ri­ences for the read­er. 

Don­ald Hall [pho­to cred­it: Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, Library of Congress]

I’ve relat­ed this before, but I will bring it for­ward again. What fol­lows is some­thing I heard Don­ald Hall, US Poet Lau­re­ate, and writer of pic­ture books, say at a lit­er­ary conference. 

“What the writer tries to do, metaphor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, is cre­ate a com­plete cir­cle. But the cir­cle is nev­er com­plete. It has a gap, like the let­ter C. If that gap is too big, the read­er can­not com­plete it. If it is too small, there is no need for the read­ers to com­plete it. But make that gap just right, and the read­er can fill it with her/his own expe­ri­ence and the cir­cle is complete.” 

Which brings me to my own mantra: Writ­ers don’t write writ­ing. They write reading. 

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