Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Two Stories an Author Tells

By Barbara Milbourn

My Natalie Goldberg small writing group chose “between the lines” as one of our prompts for next Saturday’s call. It got me thinking. Don’t some types of writing have you reading two stories at the same time? There’s the story the author thinks they are telling, and there’s the story the reader reads between the lines about the author.

This is especially true and often distracting in biography and memoir when the reader is told by the author what to feel and believe. Readers are smart; they form opinions without being told.

The first time I experienced this was several years ago in Austin. My friend Lesley and I were die-hard Martha Stewart fans. Then, as probably still now, one either loved Martha or they couldn’t stand her. We both loved her and from our respective homes on Sunday morning we would watch her show and call each other during commercials.

In 1997, a male author wrote an unauthorized biography of Martha Stewart. Being a Martha devotee, I looked forward to learning more about her. Somewhere in the first few pages I stopped reading with a single, focused eye. I was dislodged, jolted out of story, disbelieving what I was being told. Thinking that I would settle in, I continued but with reluctance. I did not want to turn the page. Every paragraph seemed laced with malice and ugly innuendos. I was force-feeding myself sentences that could only result in the development of unkind conclusions about my dear diva if I chose to believe them. I’m no Pollyanna; I can take dirt, but something was wrong.

As much as I began to question the truth of what was being written, I wondered what on earth was wrong with this author. Had he gotten up on the wrong side of the bed day after day until the book was finished? Did he have some personal score to settle? Did he know the real Martha and was he hell-bent on showing the world her warts? I didn’t know, but I didn’t care. I’d stopped seeing Martha and started seeing how much I didn’t like this guy; I didn’t trust him, didn’t believe him, and didn’t want to choke down another angry, mean-spirited word.

The same can be said when writers want their readers to sympathize with them. Disdain and empathy are viable emotions readers are eager to feel if approached without thoughts of being herded. Tell the reader a story as straight and true from the heart, experience, or imagination as possible. Then get out of the way so they stay where you want them—in story. If you do, a door will open and the reader will walk in and pass the Kleenex.

Let that space between the lines speak to the reader in such a way that they say back to you, “Oh! We didn’t notice you, but be assured we are on the train with you, fastened to your hip, all the way to the end.”

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