Monday, November 5, 2007

The Fine Art of Reaching Readers

The mail just arrived and with it the Nov/Dec issue of Poets & Writers, which reminds me I've missed yet another deadline for submissions. I open the magazine and these words jump out at me: "I get discouraged by the near invisibility of poetry in mainstream culture."[1]

Various projects have been attempted periodically to bring poetry to the masses but I think it's kind of like with music--not everyone's "into" opera, for example. "I don't understand it" (re: poetry); "It just doesn't DO anything for me" (re: opera). Maybe it gets flat out rejected based on a gut reaction to something that seems too radically different from one's usual tastes in sound or reading.

Last night I watched a segment on the life of my favorite cellist and how he tried to bridge the gap between cultures and musical tastes in an effort to share this magnificence with people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. That's what I think some writers aspire to do in their fiction and poetry, and it's harder than it looks. How can you make your writing more widely understood and universally appreciated, without losing its inner integrity?

Look at what contemporary TV news programs try to do to get more viewers: their female anchors look like polished mannikins and the focus seems more to be to Entertain than to inform; celebrity court trials and crime stories are the footage most offered and replayed ad infinitum, while significant world events sometimes barely rate a mention. God forbid that the viewer could get bored, lose interest. I think this says more about the audience than the news station. Fast forward to the publishing world. The bottom line is: "Will it sell?" And for the buyer: "What's a good read?" I think the question for writers, however, should not be "How can I reach you?" but "How can I get you to hear what I hear, see what I see?"

That sounds so egotistical, but why then do we write at all? To play the stories out like a film and hope readers stay for the finish, that they "get" something out of the experience, maybe even consider the book a "keeper." So this is the dilemma I'm experiencing in my writing lately ... any number of interesting "stories" are circling my brain crying to be told (the characters nag at me relentlessly!)--but why would anyone necessarily want to read these particular stories? How can I write words that will resonate immediately, in which a reader will recognize something that touches some deeper part of them, where they begin to understand, where the fragmentary blotches of the world begin to make sense.

That is not to say the focus has got to be mainly on "entertaining." I mean, that shouldn't be the only thing the reader comes away remembering, even if it's primarily a humorous book. At the moment, the 'darker' book is holding sway: Leave the funny children's story for the time being--you need to get the brothers' story out, one of the characters scolds. Ah, the two tortured souls of my greatest challenge in storywriting: the story of the brothers Karl and Peter. The characters, of course, are just the unborn fictional elements of my imagination and the voice is my own; regardless, the message is the same: Stay on focus. Do the more important one first. Leave the 'lighter' one till later.

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