I don’t go shopping with just anyone. First, a good shopping partner has to be willing to traverse the entirety of what a mall has to offer as I am well-known for epic bouts of indecisiveness and second-guessing. Second, they must be willing to confront a wrinkled rack of garments to help me find that one solitary piece that will magically turn me into Beyoncé’s twin sister. Third, a shopping partner must possess the moral verisimilitude to not let me walk out of the store with an item they will later make fun of me for wearing. Such a shopping partner is a rare thing.
And so is a good reader.
I don’t let just anyone read my stories either. A reader must have the patience of a grandmother, be willing to put up with my questions, my indecisiveness, and my big-headedness despite my lack of confidence. A good reader is observant, helps me pull my head out of my own rear-end and see the world around me for what it is and what I am trying to portray in my writing without telling me what to write. And, a reader must be brutally honest, the hammer of truth, possess enough moral verisimilitude to not let me send out a story that they would’ve made fun of behind my back in a workshop.
Such a reader rarely exists. He is not my husband, the type of man who would much rather “watch the movie” than “read the book.” She is not my mother, who I am actually hoping never reads a single word I write considering much of it has to do with some latent and repressed problems from my childhood I’d rather she not know about. And she is definitely not my best friend, a woman who hasn’t picked up a book since she was forced to read cases for her Property Law class.
Although, I may never find the perfect shopping partner, I do have a reader.
Actually, I have two.
I sent a draft of “What You Look Like” to my “crew,” fellow TLR contributor Stefen Styrsky and another talented writer, neighbor and friend, Jeanne Jones. The piece in its early stages was really just a series of images rather than prose-poetry or flash fiction. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with those images, I just knew I wanted to write about how one copes with the death of a child. At the time, I had just finished revising an essay about my twins’ premature birth and Stefen had mentioned recently attending a funeral for a baby, and I found that this piece came to me quite fast and quite hard. Every time I read my own words, I cried. There was no way I would’ve been able to self-edit.
They both wrote me back with lovely things to say about the rhythm and how the writing itself was interesting in unexpected ways. I smiled to myself reading the first few lines of their notes. But in the end, Stefen nailed my draft down to one word like Thor wielding Mjölnir with deadly precision. A word Jeanne also echoed. They called it “sentimental.” The kiss of death for fiction. It implies a manipulation of the reader’s feelings that are too spot on, “pat” as Jeanne puts it, that those saccharine feelings are falsely compelled. I want my readers to feel how I felt writing the piece, to feel how my narrator feels in the moment when Jane actually starts to have contractions and there is no more running away, not as though I coerced them into some fake empathy.
There were other notes about the plot (or lack thereof), but I really felt that the crux of their very astute criticism was grounded in that one word. The criticism stung, but it was what I needed to hear. A good reader does that too, tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. That word stuck with me every time I opened the folder containing my draft and stared at the screen, no longer blinded by tears, the weight of the subject matter and my own personal experiences. That word guided my revisions, alterations, if you will, so that now the images, the narrative and the voice all went together well, just like the perfect ensemble.
I do my best to be the perfect partner for them as well, always feeling pride in their accomplishments as if they were my own. A good reader does that too.
Hmm, now I wonder… maybe the next time we all get together, if we could stop by a Macy’s on the way…