By Joseph Nichols, Bluegrass Writers Studio
A few nights ago, I decided it was time.
I dimmed the lights, quieted my two sons, and cued up one of my childhood favorites: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.
A little over an hour later, my seven year old, Isaac, ran and hid under the table. The room was painted in the blues and whites of E.T.’s death scene. Elliot was pleading with his alien friend, begging the little guy not to die, promising his friend that he wouldn’t leave his side. “I’ll be right here!” he screamed.
My first reaction was to tell my son to stop acting silly. Was he crying? Why was he so upset? After all, E.T. didn’t really die. I managed to coax him to my side on the couch. Even in the low light, I could see his puffy eyes, the streaks chasing across his cheeks. He buried his face in that indeterminate space between my shoulder and clavicle.
And then, finally, it occurred to me: Isaac did not know the story. He was watching E.T. die, just as I had, once, so long ago.
For the first time.
As writers, it is far too easy to become inured to the effect of our words. We write a story and then we re-read that story. At some point in the process, the words lose their meaning. Their potency. We lose sight of the minutiae, those tiny turns that occur in the text, preparing our readers for what is to come, yes, but more importantly (and so much easier to forget), what they experience in that moment of the story.
You see, we already know what is going to happen.
We know the story.
I had brought Isaac into the story by turning on the television. By doing so, I had entered into an agreement with my boy. In effect, I had made a promise to him. It was a simple promise, one born in trust. One that crossed language barriers. From my heart to his, I had whispered: “I’ll be right here.”
There is a distinct difference between an author who allows his/her story to unravel slowly and one who pointedly leads us astray in order to, at some point, jump out from behind a curtain and scream “Gotcha!” As readers, we can tell the difference. Though a contract has not been signed, we have nonetheless entered into a contract with our reader. We have promised to give them the information that they need, when they need it, to enjoy the story. We’ve promised them that we will be right there as they read.
It is necessary, then, as we write (and even more so as we revise), to maintain the sense that we are reading our words for the first time. Sometimes that means putting the manuscript aside for a month. Other times, it might mean employing an Alpha reader – someone who is, literally, reading it for the first time – and engaging that person in direct questions about what they are feeling as they read. What they think is going to happen. Whether, even, they feel that contract has been broken with the author, and why.
Regardless, we cannot become the Know-it-All. We cannot lose sight of the moment. Writing is not as easy as printing up a story and then casting it into the Aether. To lose sight of the contract is the death of a career. It defeats the entire purpose of what we do.
As I sat there and held my son, I was expressing my attempt to make good on the promise. I was showing him that I was there with him and (again, it is so easy to overlook) for him. That was great, but he also needed a second thing. He had traveled far enough into the story that he needed the information I possessed. To trust me, he needed to know that I wasn’t going to withhold that information. He didn’t know he had crossed that line because he did not know the story. He was wholly dependent on me.
I leaned my face down against his ear and whispered the words he needed to hear.
“E.T is still alive!”
As writers, we are creating an experience, not just dictating a reality. We have to make good on the promise, the contract. Our story must engage the emotions, yes, must have the highs and lows that make it worthy of the reader’s time. Simultaneously, though, we have to know when enough is enough. The reveal, the pay-off, may not be the delighted giggle of a seven year old as he squeezes our head from our shoulders with his hug, but a reader who has learned to trust us has learned that we care as much about the contract as does he. This is a reader who will return to experience our stories again. And again.
For the first time.
Published on March 27, 2014