“Oh dear, that must have been so painful!” murmured Laura (not her real name) after I finished reading a story to our writing group. Her tone oozed compassion, and I saw a couple of eyebrows raise quizzically as others turned to look at her. I appreciated her response, though feeling it was off target.
“Actually, it wasn’t,” I demurred,“at least not on a conscious level.”
That experience brought home a crucial fact we must keep in mind as we write. We can spend years honing our Truth and writing our stories with finesse worthy of a Pulitzer, but we can’t control readers’ perceptions.
Readers hear their own story in ours.
This is not news. Mayhem at Camp RYLA, an essay I wrote years ago, is based on first-hand experience with differences in the way individuals witnessed a shared experience.
I wrote that essay years ago, and since then I’ve learned that neuroscientists have not only confirmed the validity of my observations, they have explained them. We compare new input to existing memories and information in order to catalog it for future retrieval. This classification process filters the input to fit with what we already know and does so along multiple dimensions.
Laura has never written about her childhood, and I’m guessing it was not entirely happy. That could explain why she found my story so painful while I, the one who lived the story, did not. She was probably hearing her story as I read.
Another possible factor
Another factor may be involved in this interchange. Some people are more keenly attuned to emotions than others. It’s sort of like eating chili. My mouth is lined with asbestos. Habañero peppers are a little over the top for me, but I love jalapeños. In contrast, some people I know think a sprinkle of black pepper on mashed potatoes is living dangerously. Emotionally Laura may be a black pepper person.
Implications for writers
While you have little control over this, you can monitor the emotional tone of your story to make sure it accurately reflects your own feelings. Have you reflected sufficiently on them? Did you give careful thought to the words you used, or tap in the first one that came to mind? You may need to add or subtract a few story components to get the balance right.
For example, I’ve read three or four stories to this group from a memoir I’m drafting. The stories were about my mother. After the last one, Laura mentioned that my mother was a cold, unfeeling person. I was stunned! But even aside from knowing about Laura’s filters, I could see how she would get that impression from the limited selection of stories I’d shared. Her input alerted me to be aware of this factor as I compile memoir material and to be even more thorough in examining the element of emotional reflection.
Bottom line: write your story with gusto, realizing that each reader will get a slightly different message from it, some quite different from the one you intended. This is no reflection on your skill as a writer. Think of your writing as the gift of a mirror you give to readers to make sense of their experiences in light of yours. Strong reactions from readers mean that you are stimulating them and creating emotional connections, and isn’t that a goal we all strive for?
Write now: think of a memoir or novel you’ve recently read that you related strongly to. Jot down some thoughts about how the material you recall related to your life and how reading this story changed your outlook on something. Expand your thoughts to how your life story may impact your readers.
Photo credit: Jayel Aheram