Finding an Ideal Reader

Although I’ve led hundreds of writing workshops, I’ve never joined a writing group. The reason: I don’t care what six, or eight, or ten other writers think of what I’ve written. Over the years, I’ve learned that each writer in a workshop will find at the most two readers who can offer them useful feedback for any given piece. When a writer sets out to follow the advice of everybody who makes a comment about what they’ve written, they become muddled and their writing suffers.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate good readers. I very much do! I’m just careful to whom I show my writing in progress. And I’m very lucky to have two ideal readers. The first is my agent, Victoria Pryor, who not only knows the business of publishing, she understands keenly and sensitively the business of writing. And the second is my dear friend Clara Sneed, herself a magnificent writer.

I believe it was Clara’s eyes that moved my newest book, “Small,” to its publishable version. I wrote and rewrote each essay on my own, but at a certain point, I was blind to any wordiness, or concepts that needed more illumination. Whatever and whenever she read, Clara was able to indicate moments I could improve. If the prose in “Small” flows along gracefully, with very few rough spots, it’s thanks to Clara.

I recently showed Clara an essay I’d written about how happy I am when I speak French. I began the piece by exploring the writing block I struggled with in college, when I obsessed over every word and each comma. I went on to follow my path to unblocking, and concluded with how fluent I have been in French since I was 16.

I thought I had written a pretty fine essay, but when she read it, Clara suggested I reverse the order of events. I should open where I concluded, with my recent joy in speaking French; then trace my path to overcoming writer’s block.

Of course, I initially bridled at her suggestion. My pride was wounded. But the more I think about what Clara suggested, the more I see how astute her suggestion is. Why tell my story chronologically, beginning in the past? Wouldn’t it be better to sustain a bit of mystery in the telling? To expose the reader to my joy in speaking French, and to slowly reveal the reason/s for my joy?

I haven’t begun revising yet. I’m not 100% sure of just how to go about transforming the piece. But I am certain that bringing an excellent reader into the process has helped me understand what I’ve written more deeply and completely. It has offered me a new possibility for my essay, one I hadn’t anticipated.

Dried Berries


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