The Dance Between Reader & Main Character
The dance between reader and main character. So the story goes, a reporter asked Fred Astaire what it was like to be the best dancer in the world. And Fred Astaire said, I don't know. Ask Ginger Rogers. She does the same thing I do backwards and wearing high heels. (Joshua laughs) And I think that's a really apt analogy between the dance that the reader and the author do. The author is leading, but it's important for us to recognize the talents and the deftness, deftness, not deafness, those are two totally different things, the deftness happening with our audience, who's backwards wearing high heels doing the same exact choreography that we happen to be running with. We've talked a lot about techniques to think about upping your reader's activity level, but we haven't really talked about target audience. And I think target audience is something for us to think about, 'cause I think there are toxic versions of a target audience where you're sort of like, thinking about what's going to ...
attract the most readers, and, well, this is sort of popular right now. What if I do these couple techniques, and maybe if they like Gone Girl, they'll like my writing too. Like, readers can see right through that stuff. That's an ulterior motive, right? That's not you playing to this asset of your unique and vibrant imagination. That's you trying, to like, get on the coattails of somebody else's very unique imagination. So I think it's important for us to say, you can have a target audience, if it's liberating. And you can't have a target audience if it's creating paralysis. So let me delineate between those two things. The toxic, the toxic target audience, that's not actually very easy to say, you can try it later, is the one that's gonna have those voices chirping in the back of your head. Is this gonna sell? Can I sell more copies if I put a talking dog in it? Oh, maybe it should be a superhero. Zombies are in right now. Maybe I'll put a zombie in there. That's just gonna get in the way of you trying to kind of authentically express yourself. Here's the example of a really good target audience. So, when I'm putting a novel together, I know that the first person to buy a copy of a new novel of mine is Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf climbs out of the grave and lurches slowly to the nearest independent bookstore, goes up to the counter, and says, give me the latest Mohr. Gotta have it. And after the dead Virginia Woolf buys a copy, Sam Sheppard buys a copy, and then Amy Hempel buys a copy. And then Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips buys a copy. And obviously, none of those things happen. But if I'm writing to my ideal reader, it allows me to feel like I can take chances. That allows me to feel like I can take risks. If I'm writing for Virginia Woolf, my reader is absolutely brilliant. And if you take nothing else away today, I hope that you take a lot more than that, but if you take nothing else, I think you should take this. Write as though your audience is brilliant. Write as though she's gonna get it. You don't have to hold hands. You don't have to pander. You don't have to over-explain. Pick the right image, render it correctly, and move on, because she's Virginia Woolf. (Joshua laughs) And Virginia Woolf's smarter than us. So maybe this week, take 10 minutes, take 15 minutes when you're having your morning coffee or tea and being like, what's, what's your target audience? And write to those people. Write to the people that are gonna allow you to take chances. Write to the people that are gonna let you free, feel free enough to get out of your comfort zone. I think if we're writing just in our comfort zone, we're not doing our best work. When I have a new novel coming out, I need to feel as though I might spectacularly fail. I wanna feel as though I have the opportunity to just completely fall on my face telling this story. And that brings out the best in my work ethic. That makes me brew more coffee and get back to work, write draft nine, write draft 11, gasp, write draft 15, you know, if we have to, using that target audience to inspire us to take chances, not using that toxic target audience to tamp down our enthusiasm, to tamp down our sense of adventure. You know, we have to feel incredibly limber, and we have to feel incredibly nimble and agile, as though we're capable of doing everything on the page. And if I think about Tom Waits, and I think about Sam Sheppard, I can do anything. And if I think about this crabby reader who doesn't like, who would like my work anyway? Don't write to those people. Don't write to the readers who aren't gonna like your work. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? Like, all these things are sort of sleight of hand in order for us to give ourselves kind of the ultimate permission to express ourselves in our very unique way. So do it this week. Just think about your target audience, living, dead, people you know, people you don't know. It doesn't matter. But cap some sort of litany of people that make you feel like, I can do it. (Joshua laughs) I'm capable of telling a compelling beginning and a middle and an ending to a total stranger. I can do that. I can do that, because Virginia Woolf, that's my spirit animal, by the way, Virginia Woolf tells me that I'm capable of doing that. And find your version of that, and make sure that you're, you're playing to it. Similarly, or kind of along the same line, is this word, visceral. This is a really important word for us, and it come right in line with this idea of the impassioned target audience or the target audience that allows you to take chances. So, imagine yourself sitting in an empty playhouse, and there's an argument happening onstage. Limbs are flying, limbs are flying. Spit is flying. And you're in the mezzanine. And you're at such a distance from the action that you don't feel its true imports. You don't feel the gravity of the emotional stakes. And sure, you're too far away. I would make the argument that one of the biggest tasks for us as creative writers is to narrow that gap, is to get the reader out of that mezzanine, get her into row 15, get her into row 11, get her into row five, until she's sitting in the first row. That way, she can feel the volatility. That way, the spit that's flying out of the actor's mouth might hit her right on the shoulder. (Joshua laughs) Right in the lap, or right on the cheek. We want our reader that close. We want her to be participating. We want her to be experiencing things on a sensory, on a sensory level. So this is another thing that I think we should be thinking about when we're generating new scenes and we're putting a new story together or a new essay together. Am I using alive enough language? Am I bringing these emotions to life in such a way that my reader can inhabit them? 'Cause if someone says, I got on an airplane and I had a panic attack, well, okay. That's not a story. But if somebody takes the time to authentically inhabit that panic attack and bring it to life in a five-sense way, what does she taste, what does she see, what does he hear, so on and so forth so we understand, not that, not what a panic attack is like for a thousand people, but what a panic attack is like for this one woman in this one airplane in this one afternoon. That's visceral. That's using visceral language to bring these things to life. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? We wanna, we wanna figure out a way to push ourselves to use the most active, dynamic language that we possibly can. I'm having an asthma attack. I sort of know what that means. I think you've got that inhaler thingy, and then you do that thing, and you're better. But put me inside that panic, that asthma attack. What does that feel like? What if that, your inhaler is in the next room? How worried are you? What does that feel like? Are the stakes mortal? Are you sort of cavalier about it, and that makes things worse? Again, playing to the mechanisms of that person's particular and nuanced way of dealing with things. So on one hand, we're using our target audience to feel liberated, to feel strong, to feel capable of doing anything on the page, because she, our reader, is magnificently brilliant, and she can do anything on the page. She can put all the pieces together. And if she's doing that, and we're taking the time to use visceral language to bring these moments to life, active verbs, right, if I'm gonna go out the door here, am I gonna walk? There's 25 verbs I could pick to get out the door there. Are you picking strong enough verbs? Are you getting these odd collisions of nouns and adjectives? Are you playing with sentence structure? Are you letting the piece tell you its grammar potential? We want all of these things working at the same time, adding up to kind of the cohesive whole of the whole entire story, but getting there, it's all of these different factors. So again, that's why I wanted to kind of like, practice these as isolated commodities, and then we'll start folding them together and using some of these in unison to see how they can work off of each other, to add up to whatever effect you're trying to achieve in that particular scene. I think a panic attack is a really good illustration for us. Someone's sitting on an airplane, and you see her in row two, seat F, and her arms are on the armrest, and she's looking ahead, and there are no signs, right? She's not praying. Her fingers aren't white. She just looks calm. Nothing's happening. But everything's happening. It's just on the inside. She's gonna die. She knows it. This plane's gonna go down, right? Like, she's convinced of it. From the outside, you can't see any shred of this. There is no external evidence. But we charge the language in such a visceral, palpable way that it becomes this sphere. It becomes this ecosystem for the reader to be inside of. Your readers are very smart, despite all evidence to the contrary. (Joshua laughs) It's very important for us to write like our audience is really smart, and I think it's also important to tip our hat to the idea that we're never gonna make every reader happy. I don't know if it was the same day, but it was like in the same week, I had a novel come out, and the New York Times said it's beat poet cool, and I said, that's rad. I will totally take that, New York Times. And then the next day or a couple days later, The Washington Post headline was, Mohr is drunk on cliches. Ouch. (Joshua laughs) And who's right? Well, obviously, in this particular example, The New York Times is right. But the point is is that we're never gonna make every reader happy, and nor should we try. Write to the readers who are gonna celebrate your unique gifts, not to the people who are gonna be like, that's not my style. That's not my bag. I don't dig it. That's fine. We're not always gonna make The Washington Post happy, and we shouldn't try. We write our story, our beginning, our middle, and our ending, and if we do our job right, if we're honest and we approach the material with an open heart, the reader will also bring an open heart, and we'll meet in the middle, and we'll share something really beautiful together. I believe that books are in hibernation. All my books are in suspended animation on a shelf until a reader is generous enough to bring it to life with her imagination and heart. It doesn't do anything until this generous person brings it to life. We need her, and she needs us, and that's the beautiful dance of literature that's been going on for forever. So, again, think about the reader in ways that makes you feel inspired, but don't ever think about the reader in such a way where you feel like, well, maybe I can't do that. You absolutely can, (Joshua laughs) assuming you're writing to the right reader. Does that make sense? You know, I think this idea of active participation can really never be overstated. You know, we just wanna make sure that they're there and their proximity to the action, their proximity to the scene, is as close as it could possibly be. We'll do one last exercise around morality, and then we'll move on for the day. And I wanna talk about an exercise about the right kind of DUI. Right? Like, we know you shouldn't drive drunk. Driving drunk is bad. True. Stop driving drunk. (Joshua laughs) But, what if you had a really good reason? What if you've gone to work, and you've been gainfully employed, you haven't done anything wrong, you get home from work, listen to some records, having a couple slugs of scotch, no harm, no foul, but your sister calls, she doesn't know where her husband is, she's eight months pregnant, and she needs to get to the hospital. Call an ambulance. Can't afford it. I've been drinking. I need you. What do you do? I got two younger sisters. you wanna know what I would do? I would hop in the car, and I would go over there as fast as I can. I don't think that's the right thing to do. I know that's not the right thing to do. But I'm gonna do it anyways, because my love for my sisters transcend any legality. If I honestly feel like one of them is in harm's way, I will do anything I could possibly do to help her get the attention that she needs. So that would be sort of my version, right, of the gentlemanly DUI. (Joshua laughs) Is that a thing? I don't think it is. But for the sake of argument, the gentleman's DUI. What would be your reason? Think about a character, and this is interesting too, time of day. So in the example I just used, it was after work, seven p.m., and you're sort of on the, as the reader, you're like, loves his family. I mean, this is an extraordinary circumstance. He's doing the best he can. What if it's seven o'clock in the morning? How does that change your relationship to this character? Does the clock matter, or he just springing to action? It's so fascinating how you can tweak one little detail, and all of the sudden, the whole scene is charged in an entirely and vast new, vast new way. But regardless, that's neither here nor there. I wanna hear your, your example of the moral DUI, somebody doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. And in your version, they can get away with it. They can get pulled over. You can do anything you want. I just wanna see how you're navigating and trying to employ the most visceral and kind of crackling language that you possibly can to make your reader as close to the action as you possibly can make her be. Does that make sense, what we're gonna do this time? All right. Happy writing. (light instrumental music) I heard lots of agro clacking, which is what I like to hear, you guys going nuts with these props. Let's, I'd like to hear, obviously I wanna hear one example. We've gone sort of through the whole rotation, so whichever of you would like to share, that's fine, but before we get to that, if you could grab those microphones. I would quickly like to hear of all sort of the, the moral exercise that we've been. How did this one sort of stack up? Was it easier for you now that we've attacked it from a couple different vantage points to see how this person's reality, this person's decision-making, is it getting easier to sell as we continue to kind of work on this skill here? If anyone, just thoughtful nods, that's good. Does anyone wanna say anything? (Joshua laughs) That's okay. You don't have to say anything.
I found it harder to find an example, 'cause I felt I had to, sort of, match the fact that you would sort of end up killing somebody if you were, you'd been drinking. But once I focused on the fact that, you know, once you've got kids, you know, there are, if there's a life-and-death situation, I think that it would be easy to sort of make that moral judgment. I've got to admit, it took me, mine's probably not the best one to read, 'cause it took me a long time to sort of find that reason that I could justify in my mind. So it's not actually that long.
But thinking about it from a parent standpoint, that's what sort of helped you crack the code?
Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah, 'cause it, kids get into it all sort of amount of difficulties, and they tend to do it at exactly the wrong moment. (Joshua laughs)
That's funny. No, and I think that's great too, 'cause it speaks to the, one of the theses of the entire course, which is be like, how do you mine your life experience, and how do you then turn it into art? 'Cause sometimes, we would wanna write an essay about something that our, our kid or our children have done, and sometimes, we can just sort of use the anxiety from the particulars of that anecdote and then just bring that energy into something that we're going to make up from scratch. So, is that life experience, or is that something else? Like, my, the ending of my novel Damascus, I knew that I wanted it to end with this really amazing thing that happened when my father passed away, and when my father passed away, he was at home, and he was naked, the hospice nurse says, oh, as a way to say goodbye, if you guys want, you can dress him as a way to say goodbye. And it was my stepmom, my two sisters, my ex-wife. We were all in the room, and we dressed him together. It was this really beautiful moment, and I tried to write about it for years and I couldn't get it right. And then I started to erase characters. So like, first I got my sisters out of there, like, get out of the way. And then I was like, get my ex-wife out of here. Get out of here. And then it was just the three of us. It was me and my stepmother and my father, and what I realized is that I had to edit myself out of the memory. And when it became this moment of a spouse saying goodbye to her lover, doting on this person one final time, that was when the moment came to life, no pun intended. So is that memoir? Like, it happened to me, but I'm not in the scene. I mean, there's these really fascinating questions for us to examine, like, how do we best use our system of life experiences? 'Cause sometimes, things just work straight, and sometimes we wanna take the essence, the things that we've learned through these things, and run it through our, you know, mechanisms of being a fiction writer and have it spit out as something wholly its own. Who would like to share their exercise? You want to? Sure, yeah.
But I did wanna say that I mined, my mom told me about this time one time when she had to learn how to drive a stick, and that's where I started. I was like, okay, so, she had to learn how to drive a stick like on the fly in an emergency. Okay, so then, apply the drunk driving to it, and it became pretty easy. So.
I love that. You know, again, it's this odd, you know, Venn diagram, you know, the non-fiction of our life experiences. Sometimes we skew the facts. Is that reality? Is that memoir? Is that fiction? I think that stuff is really interesting. And the cool thing is, and the frustrating thing, is a bunch of writers will answer that in completely different fashions. (Joshua laughs) So it's a matter if figuring out kind of like, what your truth or what kind of your ethics are gonna be around those things. Like, I ended up publishing that as a novel 'cause I felt like that wasn't about me anymore. It became about a man and his wife, and then that kind of took on a life of its own, and then suddenly, it wasn't about my dad anymore. It was about this character. And it wasn't about my stepmom. It was about this person who I had dreamed up. So, still using the very fertile territory of my grieving process, but allowing it to evolve into how best to disseminate that information to the audience to get the utmost emotional effect. (Joshua laughs)
Jack picked me up in the '49 Mercury he'd just bought a few years ago. It was gleaming blue, and all the trim sparkled in the sun. He was excited for me, which wasn't something men back then in the 50s really were for women that got writing jobs at the paper. Sure, it was only a column on local events, and I didn't have to write anything about it except when it was, or when it was happening, but it was real, and it was mine, and he was gonna take me to celebrate. We had a special spot where we'd drive to the sunset, and it was our secret, and he brought my favorite, though no one would know it, because we weren't allowed to drink whiskey either. Ah, we'd be seen as loose if we had. But he brought me a bottle and a glass from his mother's kitchen and poured me, poured me a shot. He put water in his 'cause he was gonna drive home, but he wanted to clink my glass and celebrate my success. We were sitting on the grass on the blanket he had taken out of the trunk and had gotten talking about all the big plans I was gonna have. I was gonna write for the New York Times. It was gonna happen. No woman had ever done that before, and I was gonna be the first, and Jack was gonna help me. The sun was going down, and I probably had one more whiskey than I should have, and we were laying on our backs, our heads together on the blanket, and we were watching the first stars to come out of the sky. But Jack stopped talking, and he started to shake, and I couldn't figure out why. And when I took a look, he was just shaking so hard his eyes had rolled back into his head. And I shot up and I yelled his name, but he didn't respond. Jack, Jack. But he just started to continue, he continued to shake, and it was getting worse, and there was some white spittle turning into bubbles at the side of his mouth. We were 10 miles outside of town. I needed to get him to the hospital, but I couldn't pick him up. He needed the hospital. I thrust my hand into his pocket and fished out the keys and ran to the car. I started the car and floored the gas pedal so I could get out of the field and started towards town. I had to get help. My heart was racing, and I finally reached the pavement, and the wheels slid on the grass from the field, and the front tire scrubbed the pavement. The car started to lose control of the road.
I cannot believe you did that in 10 minutes. Jesus, that's incredible. And talk about using visceral language. Like, we're feeling the anxiety. Like, we're feeling the panic, in a way that like, I feel like I was involved in that, in that moment. And the other thing that really stuck out to me too is we were just working on like a working definition of what voice means. That's what voice means. An instantaneous personality showing itself at the first sentence and playing to that in each subsequent line. I mean, the voice is charming and cerebral and optimistic, and then all of the sudden, we're dealing with unforeseen circumstances and doing it on the fly, so. Well done.