One of novelist Rose Tremain’s rules for writing is this: “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.'” Today in CO301D, my students and I are thinking together about how writers gain the courage to share the work they really care about with others. Here’s how that has played out in my writing life.
When I first started submitting my work to academic venues, I started reading professional publications from another, different perspective because I wanted to be a published academic writer, too. A big part of reading like a writer in this vein meant that I was “reading for pronouns.” The third-person pronoun “one” just sounded pretentious, so I was relieved to find that the trend even in the most research-y journals was that academic authors often used the word “I” (or “we” if they were co-authoring), and that depending on the journal, the second-person “you” was also an option.
That got me asking myself the question, then, “Who’s my ‘you’?”
Initially, writing for academic venues was pretty daunting to me (okay, it still it is sometimes. ((okay, often))). And it was especially so when I was working on my first book, The Book Club Companion.
Dang, I was actually daring to write a book. Little ole me.
Then little ole me got stuck. My reader(s)–please, god, let there be more than one–were a nameless, faceless mass of teachers who I hoped would find my ideas useful and adaptable for their own classes. Other than my fabulously supportive editor Jim Strickland, though, I wasn’t able to picture exactly what those teachers actually looked like.
Then, I hit upon a solution that helped me write my way through that thicket of the problem and, eventually, I had a book. (Dang. Little ole me.) I can’t remember if the solution was Jim’s advice or not. Probably, it was. The important thing to know is that it worked, and it still does.
I figured out who my “you” was. I was able to zoom in on that abstract mass of teachers and see one teacher’s face.
At that time, my “you” was Emily Richards-Moyer, a dedicated whip-smart English teacher and CSU Writing Project fellow who was actually trying book clubs out with her middle school students. We chatted often about what worked and what didn’t in re book clubs and also about writing and teacher research and the daily challenges of teaching and good wine and running and…well, you get the picture.
When Emily became my “you,” the act of writing got a little bit easier. In fact, some days, I even started the section I was working on with “Dear Emily,” and somehow, that got me started because I could imagine my writing as a kind of conversation.
To this day when I’m writing for venues inhabited by classroom teachers, Emily is often still my “you.” And when I’m writing for other venues like this blog, I call the face(s) of my would-be readers to mind and do the same. (Like right now, I’m thinking of my CO301D students who are tapping away on their keyboards at this very minute. I’m also thinking of other thoughtful, whip-smart, dedicated educator-bloggers like Nicole Mirra, Bud Hunt, and Antero Garcia because my conversations with them, face-to-face or otherwise, always sharpen my thinking.)
Again, I’m not the only writer who’s hit upon this idea. John Steinbeck, for instance, advised:
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one. – John Steinbeck
So if there’s anybody listening out there right now, tell me, as a writer, who’s your “you”?