My back pocket buzzed in the international foods aisle. I try not to check my phone in the store to avoid contaminating it with my covidy fingers that have been all over the communal groceries. But I expected word from The Spun Yarn—an evaluation by early readers of my first book— so with every push notification, I jumped.
I had heard other writers hadn’t been able to get much work done during lock down. All manner of crazy was happening in my very full house but none of it involved physical illness or going hungry, so instead of perfecting a sourdough, I used the time to write. (I am from San Francisco so, regardless, I wouldn’t have dared.) My manuscript, Scrappy, was completed during the unending summer and had been in the hands of the betas for nearly a month. I yanked the phone out to scan the full report in my inbox, skipped over full blocks of text and mined for compliments, key words of praise I dug out like bits of brownie in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
“The author has a captivating voice and story…excellent at her craft…”
“A pleasure to read on a sentence level…a few turns of phrases I especially enjoyed.”
“Gripping…kept me wanting more…incredibly true to life…so realistically wrought…”
“Vivid details and realistic dialogue…she dove completely in…heartbreaking and eye-opening.”
Right there in front of the rows of hot sauce, I cried. They liked it.
Now that I’d enjoyed my pats on the head, I was ready to hear what they really thought. “I was a bit disappointed that the author didn’t explain more of her feelings… Did she feel betrayed, furious, or alone? We are left to infer all these emotions, which is less effective in showing how defining this moment was for her.”
“The emotional impact is diminished by cutting out of the scene too soon or not giving any feeling that the event had any real effect on the author’s life. Moments like these deserve time for our narrator to express how she felt and how it pervaded her thoughts.”
I hyperventilated a little, causing the heavy cloth “VOTE” mask to seal around my nose and mouth, restricting my breath all the more. I now regretted what had seemed like a good choice when I swiped it off the dash from the scattered collection of political statements baking in the Miami sun.
My eyes landed on the wrap-up from the head honcho at The Spun Yarn.
“At times, readers felt scenes ended abruptly and wanted to spend a little longer processing these moments from Elizabeth’s point of view. It’s a very good thing that readers want more details because it means they care about your characters and enjoy your writing. So, keeping that core theme in mind, what details can you add to allow readers to connect more with the story?”
I had run away just when they were ready to feel something.
The socially distanced checkout line wound around the prepared foods section. I pulled my full cart behind a young couple and took a moment to absorb the critique. The readers felt cheated. It didn’t feel that way when I wrote it. Some of the scenes made me cry every time I re-read them.
But. I had survived the hard times I had described by picking myself up and pushing on. If I had sat around contemplating the “emotional impact” of what had happened, I’d have been done for. And then I remembered what Mary Karr said about the genre of memoir. That people are drawn to it because they want to “occupy another person’s heart.” My readers had wanted to occupy mine and I had denied them. I had protected myself, like I had learned to so long ago.
I loaded the groceries and slid into the driver’s seat for my sanitizing ritual: sprayed hands and goggles, removed mask, disinfected hands again, wiped down phone. I thought I had let my readers into my heart, but apparently I didn’t quite know what that looked like on the page. I couldn’t just tell my story of perseverance and skip off down the road to book number two that I couldn’t wait to write.
Driving home, the readers’ feedback looped through my mind. I was the emotionally unavailable boyfriend that had frustrated me so much as an undergrad. (Sorry, Greg, if you are reading.) The lesson landed, hopefully for the last time. If you want deep connections with other humans, there is no way to avoid your own vulnerability. You must let people in. No skipping over the hard parts. I can’t believe I wrote a whole book about how I had persisted through adversity and I still have to deal how I felt about it. &*%$. I have more work to do.
So. Go be the real you. It’s going to be okay. It seems scary, but it’s the only way.
Writing Prompt: What details you leave out?