And That Reminds Me...

The ultimate payoff for a writer is when a reader says, “That reminds me…”  meaning that something you wrote – a character, a place, a situation, an emotion – triggered something from the reader’s own experience.  Sure, a check in the mailbox is nice, especially when it arrives in the nick of time, but checks get cashed and money gets spent.  What connects with a reader is more likely to last.

I thought about that when I got a note from a friend who had read my recent blog “Among The Graves At Thiacourt,” about my visit to an American cemetery in France, the final resting place of 4,000 of our soldiers from World War One.  For my friend, it brought back the memory and emotion of his visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach, where American casualties from World War Two are buried.  And that’s the magic of writing and reading: two imaginations intersect through the telling of a story.  What I wrote resonated with my friend.  I couldn’t ask for more.

I get a fair number of similar responses from folks who read my stories.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small town somewhere in the South.  It bears a pretty good resemblance to the small southern town where I grew up.  I set the story there because it was familiar territory.  I populated my fictional town with the kinds of people I knew growing up.  After the book was published, I got a letter from a reader who said, “You wrote about my hometown in Iowa.”  That told me there was a good measure of universality about the characters and the story, and that’s why it resonated with a reader from another part of the country.

Setting and plot can trigger something in a reader’s imagination, but the part of a story that’s most likely to connect is character.  For that to happen, a writer has to be honest and authentic with the characters he or she imagines.  The writer is asking a reader to take a leap of faith into the story, and to do that, the leap has to start from solid ground.  You have to be able to believe the character is plausible – someone you might know – and the character has to be presented warts and all.  We human beings are combinations of dark and light, and if, in presenting a character’s story I omit the dark places, you know right away the character isn’t authentic.  The same goes if something the character says or does doesn’t ring true.  And that probably means you aren’t ready to take the leap of faith.

The central character in Home Fires Burning is a crusty curmudgeon of a small-town newspaper editor named Jake Tibbetts.  I knew I had presented Jake honestly and authentically when a reader called me and said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten my hands on Jake Tibbetts at three o’clock this morning, I’da wrung his neck.”  But then he went on to say that Jake had a fiercely independent streak and a willingness to speak his mind, good traits for a newspaper editor.  My reader and I had connected through Jake.

A story is a meeting place between two imaginations – the writer’s and the reader’s.  Every reader brings his or her own knowledge, experiences, beliefs and emotions to the reading of the story and finds things in it the writer might never have suspected were there.  It’s a kind of alchemy, a magic that exists nowhere else, and it makes each reader’s experience with the story unique.  When a reader tells me it worked, I’m satisfied.

But…I’m also happy to find a check in the mailbox.

It's Festival Time!

It’s Spring, and that means a raft of literary festivals, especially in the South.  At last count, I noted eleven in this part of the country.  Every state worth its name seems to have one – some as short as one day, some lasting several – in which writers and readers are brought together in joyous celebrations of the written word.

I’ll be involved in two during the month of April.

On Saturday, April 19, it’s the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.  It’s a day-long affair featuring author presentations, workshops, book signings, food, music, and schmoozing.  More than 50 authors, all with Alabama connections, will be there to share our work and enjoy the interaction with readers.  

Then Thursday – Saturday, April 24-26, it’s the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee, author of one of the two truly iconic books in American fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird (the other being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn).  The Symposium honors an outstanding author and literary scholar each year, and this year the awards go to two longtime friends and truly gifted writers – novelist and screenwriter Mark Childress and historian Wayne Flynt.

Writing, as I’ve said many times before, is lonely, painful work – an individual sport.  We scribblers spend hours, days, years behind closed doors battling demons, writers’ blocks, and infected paper cuts.  Then at some point we stagger out into the light of day clutching dog-eared stacks of paper and proclaim, “I just wrote THE END.”  At this point, as I tell aspiring writers, art meets commerce.  Writer meets reader.  To have a reader express an interest in what you’ve just toiled over so mightily is the payoff.  When organizers of a literary festival bring tons of readers together to express interest, that’s as good as it gets.

When writers gather, we talk shop: who’s written what, which agents are hot, who’s got the latest mega book deal; and we commiserate over the profound changes, for good and evil, that are taking place in the book business.  We swap tales over manuscripts rejected, e-books launched, the pleasures and perils of marketing.  The art/commerce thing.

But more importantly, we congratulate each other over having written, and we rejoice in the opportunity to look our readers in the eye and thank them for their encouragement and support.  It’s a love fest.

And for readers, it’s a chance to meet, see, hear, touch the poor souls who labored so long and hard to bring forth works of poetry, fiction, memoir, history – all of the written things that entertain, inform, educate, and even disturb.

If you love good writing and reading, seek out a literary festival near you and go.  You’ll find yourself among folks of like mind, you’ll have fun, and you’ll make a bunch of deserving writers mighty happy.