What Do Writers Owe Readers; What Do We Owe Ourselves?

Mary Vensel White
Jul 29 · 7 min read

Recently in my work as an editor, I was writing developmental notes for a first-time author. In his novel, he had chosen to write from the point of view of a certain character and well, I didn’t think it worked. I had several reasons, but the main one had to do with the authenticity of the character’s arc. Anybody who’s been to any sort of creative writing class or workshop can tell you what the arc of a story is: the journey of the main character as he changes, grows, or learns while facing challenges. In other words, the events of the plot as experienced by the character. And those experiences are uniquely shaped by what the author, as a human, brings to the table. Your character’s journey should reflect something you’ve learned, or explore a way in which you’ve grown or changed. With the perspective my client had chosen, I felt he was trying to avoid having any skin in the game. He seemed unwilling to do the emotional excavating required to find some personal connection to the work.

It seems to me that self-expression, this sharing of universal experience, is the main reason to write at all.

In addition to being an editor, I’m a writer, and I’ll be the first to tell you that sometimes, the ways our personal selves crop up in our writing don’t always feel intentional. In the last piece of fiction I finished — a short story — several weeks after it was done, I reread it and realized the feelings the character was having were my feelings, about a similar situation in my life. Sometimes, it takes many years before revelations become clear in a way they couldn’t be while you were submerged in the fresh murkiness of writing. We believe we’re drawing unique and original elements from a well of pure creativity; as it turns out, the water is teeming with our memories, relationships, impressions, joys, hurts, triumphs, disappointments and misunderstandings. Writing with no emotional investment is like driving a frequently-traveled route and realizing you’ve forgotten your destination. It’s all rote performance, without impact or intent. And I believe that comes across to readers.

What I’m working on currently is a YA novel. I began this project a few years ago; it wasn’t a YA novel then. Now, I’m recasting the previously-written sections with a new point of view and voice. The aims and method of the novel will change, but some of the same problems remain. The reason progress halted in the first place was because it began to feel like wrangling an octopus — many thematic arms and plot tentacles I couldn’t control. I didn’t know where the story was going. And most fatally, I didn’t know what it was about. What was at stake for my main character, and what did any of it have to do with me, Mary, and my life and journey? That’s why the story lost steam and as I rewrote, nearing the place I had quit the first time, I started having some of the same questions and hesitations.

I’m a believer in the natural balance of the universe. I’m a believer in opening channels to receive what you need. Once I gave some space to the problem and tuned my eyes and ears to the character’s path, I was given an answer. Call it a moment of reckoning. A thunderbolt. A vision. Whatever. I figured out why I had to tell this story, what it had to do with me.

That’s the magic of art, isn’t it, of music, painting, or writing? Finding sparks that ignite flames in someone else. Making them feel something.

Around 1704, a colormaker in Berlin named Diesbach was attempting to create a shade of red by experimenting with iron oxidation. Accidentally, he made a new blue instead. Prussian blue was the first synthetic blue pigment, and it had an immense effect on the future of painting — both practice and theory — for the next three centuries. Check out Picasso’s “Blue Period,” or think about Van Gogh’s Starry Night. So what if you were a painter in the 1700s when Prussian blue became available? This saturated, rich color would expand your painting vocabulary, allowing you to communicate in new ways. And what if you decided, for whatever reason, not to use it?

I think about this in terms of a writer’s tools — those memories, impressions and feelings bobbing in the well where we dip our bucket for inspiration. If you were a painter in the 1700s, wouldn’t it be your responsibility to use the deepest, richest colors available? And if you’re a writer, shouldn’t you draw on the complete catalog of your life experiences, especially the highest of highs and the lowest of lows?

Do we have an obligation to readers to dig deep and confront our most personal and dramatic life events? Do we have a responsibility to ourselves as artists?

I’ve been asking this question among writers I know. One talked about addressing an ongoing social issue in her writing. She claimed to feel a moral imperative in this regard, which is respectable but not necessarily what I was getting at. Another drew a distinction between my term, “obligation,” and the notion of “responsibility.” An obligation we do not have, she said, but a responsibility, we certainly do. Some said they had honestly never thought about it. And do we have to? Doesn’t everything we write coming from deep within? I’m often asked which character in my novels I find most relatable. Which one is me, readers want to know. The answer can change over time and also, there is no real answer. Because they are all relatable; in some ways, they are all me. Must I make a conscious effort to explore, say, the joy of my child’s birth or conversely, the grief I felt when I lost my mother? Won’t it come out in the wash anyway?

A few years ago, I started writing a series of short stories. Once I had finished maybe six or seven, I started thinking in terms of a collection and what the stories had in common. In my mind, they were all about loss, and how we soldier on when we lose a person, a situation, or a part of ourselves. This made sense. My father passed away in 2016 and that wasn’t easy. When your grandparents die, and then your parents, you find yourself re-imagining your identity; they are such ballasts for your sense of self. Still, the grieving over my dad was much more than I had anticipated; it made sense that loss would saturate my work. Some of the stories were about women in middle age transitioning from earlier lives as wives and mothers to something else. That also made sense, given my stage of life. I sent the stories to a fellow writer for critique and her ideas about overlapping themes. And she said many of the stories were about marriage. At the time, this surprised me. I hadn’t really thought about it, hadn’t intended to say anything on that topic. But two years later I was divorced, and I’ve come to understand several things: that my grieving process for my dad was entwined with grieving the gradual loss of a trusted partner, that my stories about women growing new skins bubbled up from my own subconscious, where plans for a reinvented life were already underway, and that many of the seemingly outlandish elements of these stories were me — again, without conscious awareness — trying to make sense of a nonsensical situation. Hindsight: 20/20.

So if innermost feelings and profound experiences appear in our writing without conscious effort, do we have to be purposeful about it?

Many writers have written about formative life events: the birth of children, discovery (and loss) of spiritual faith, relationships beginning and ending, the passing of loved ones, betrayals, bullying, physical and mental abuse, addiction, etc. We write, sometimes, to help us heal and understand, or to bring encouragement to others going through something similar. We are readers and have been saved by words ourselves, many times. Art as therapy is a thing and this impulse is good and should be trusted.

But what if diving into a deep pool of Prussian blue seems too encompassing, too difficult, too soon or too late, or something you’d rather not do? As writers of fiction, we’re obviously free to choose our topics, free to decide which buckets to lower into the well of our innermost being. If we decide to focus on something painful such as, for example, our divorce, aren’t we picking or choosing anyway? It’s very likely that many quite lovely things happened (they did) throughout that horrendous (and surprisingly generous) year (2018). It’s also very likely that when we try to write a heartfelt, saturated, Prussian blue impression of the seismic transition and tragedy of divorce, our writer friend will read it and say she thinks it’s about freedom, hope, and discovering your lost self (it was that too).

All fiction is just that: fiction. It’s the filtering and distillation of whatever we think we want to say, or need to say, or can’t help saying.

And so, I’ve come to some conclusions about writing from personal experience. The best we can do (the best I can do), maneuvering through obstacles on this blue, spinning planet, is to examine the why of anything we write, to be as clear as we can be about intentions. Don’t write to add hurt or negativity. Forgive if you want to, or don’t. Paint a Prussian blue streak or sometimes, lighten up with pastels. Bring your best, do your best, have some skin in the game, one way or another. It’s the only way the practice of writing (and, in fact, the very exercise of living) makes sense for me.

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