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.
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.