When I first started out as a writer, I attended a few writing workshops. They were pretty typical: we were assigned readings, discussed them in class, and each week one of us would present our work for the others to “workshop.” Sometimes, this worked out rather well. There were almost always some good readers in the class. But there were also always people in the class who did more harm than good. There was the workshop leader whose love for Hemingway and the sailor in our class brought out just the teeniest tiniest misogynistic tendencies; there was the student who had to mention, every class, that an editor at Random House had shown interest in her work; there were the sullen young men in black just waiting for everyone to read what they wrote; there was the mansplaining. Most of the time, these people did not intend to shoot their fellow writers in the kneecaps, figuratively speaking, but so few of us – present company included — were aware of what we needed from readers that we frequently wound up worse off than when we started.
Thankfully, after many, many years of trial and error, I’ve realized a) how important willing and capable readers truly are to a writer’s success; and b) there’s no such thing as an ideal reader. You might be different. You might know a brilliant, selfless, insightful, Perfect 10 reader who is available at all times to give you exactly the kind of feedback you need. Good luck finding a battery pack to charge that one. But for the rest of us, it’s much more realistic to cultivate what I like to think of us a tribe of readers. This tribe will look slightly different for each writer, but for the sake of illustration, here are a few examples of who’s in mine:
The First Stringers. These are the people in my life who are contractually obligated to love everything I do. They are the people on whom I foist the first drafts of my novels, the ones I come to when I’m exhausted and am sure that I can never write again because I’m caught up in the whole drama and self-pitying fatigue of shaping something that only vaguely represents a completed book. They are also, incidentally, some of the people who love me best. They include my best friend of twenty years and my two sisters. Each one of them is also a sharp and brilliant reader, but they love me more than my writing. They make nice noises and tell me how great I am and wipe my nose and talk me off the ledge. They insist it’s shaping up to be the best thing I’ve ever written. And because that’s also a way they tell me that they love me unconditionally, I drink in their love and keep going.
The Conceptualists. These are the people who are most capable of rescuing you from the terrible myopia you will get once you’ve read a draft way too many times. They are smart readers who do not see it as an unkindness to point out areas where they got confused, to ask you why you’ve made certain choices, who want, most of all, to make sense of the book. They respect you, but they are more interested in reading great books than they are in whether or not you’ve produced great writing. I actually don’t have any conceptualists in my tribe right now, as they tend to be more nomadic – passing in and out of my life depending on where they are in theirs. Still, this is part of their beauty and value; they prioritize the read over the writer.
The Bolsterers. Similar to first stringers, these are the people who can bear to read your work a trillion times and still give you thoughtful feedback. They lead with kindness and compassion, but don’t want you to see you go out in the world with spinach between your teeth, as it were. They will always encourage you, but they won’t pretend something’s working for them if it’s not. These are good people to have as members of a regular writing group. They know what it is to hunger for the best possible writing you can produce, and also know the realities of how tough it can be to do just that.
The Critics. These are some of the toughest readers to find: truly critical folks who are still more interested in helping you than they are in tearing you down. Unfortunately, bullies and egomaniacs tend to masquerade as critics, sometimes without even realizing they’re doing so. Fortunately, bullies and egomaniacs throw plenty of red flags up in your path. They tend to be hyper-focused on a particular type of writing or writer, and regularly mock those who don’t fit into that mold. They tend to have written very little themselves, though they might speak of dusty, grandiose aspirations. They might claim to be dispensing tough love, and might have a few insightful things to say, but overall you do not walk away with the sense that they respect your aesthetic and vision and have read your work with an eye toward enhancing your particular voice. True critics, on the other hand, see what the work wants to be and also where it’s faltering; they point out the rough spots, and they believe in the writer who’s created them. I have one true critic in my life, and her read is the one I reserve for that moment when I suspect the book is truly done, but remember that a book is never done until it has a great reader.
Family Members Who Are Too Close. These are the reads we must survive. Take my parents, for instance. They adore everything I do because I’m theirs, but by the same token, they see my position as a published writer as one of excruciating vulnerability. They are the people who oohed and ahhed over my painted rock phase (age 4 to about age 11; I kid you not), but who also worry more than anyone about what The New York Times might say. My husband also fits into this category, for very different reasons. He adores me no matter what I do, but does not adore literature. He’s an engineer by training, a patent attorney by profession, and while he’s a voracious reader, he prefers science fiction that he can get through by simply reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. We both just about die when he has to read my books, which is usually right when they’ve been published and neither one of us can put it off any longer. He usually says things like, “Wow! That was REALLY well written!” Still, it’s hard. And in all three cases – my mom, my dad, and my husband — I cannot really listen to their feedback. But I do, anyway; accept that it will affect me far more than it should, for better or worse; and move on.
So there you have it. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you probably already have a tribe in the making. But do take care to select members of your reading tribe with the greatest of care, and have the courage to revisit their roles if necessary. You must also give your readers as much as you take; love them back just as unequivocally; ply them with books you know they’ll love; give them nice pens; recognize that just as you are a writer with strengths and weaknesses, so, too, is every reader; and never fail to thank them, profusely, for being vital members of a community your writing cannot survive without.