I love letters. I don’t think I have ever thrown one out. (Yes, I know, I don’t throw anything out, but still, this.) When I was a young person, back in the middle ages (oh be quiet) we didn’t have mobile phones or email or Facebook and when we fell in love we wrote love letters. And when my best friend and I had a fight, or had a problem, we wrote long letters about it to one another. And when I went travelling for a year, I wrote my parents letters and cards. And when they were angry with me, or missed me, they wrote to me, they wrote to their little girl. And later, when my sweet mother-in-law had something to tell me, she wrote me a letter, because that was her medium. And those letters are all in my attic now, carefully bundled by correspondent and cared for and treasured just as some of them were meant to be; even though others of them were just notifications and gossip and practical business and recipes for parsnip soup.
What is precious about the letters in my attic is that they were all written to me and with me in mind; they were each, in their way, a gift to me. And next to them is another box; a box of diaries, my diaries. And each of those was written to me too, and with me in mind. I could trust myself with my secrets.
How fortunate I still am today, to have so many writer clients writing me beautiful letters, cards, thank yous, warm wishes, love notes, hilarious emails. And novels. One of the roles I play as my clients’ agent is to be their reader. Yes, on a practical level, I am usually the first person to read their manuscripts. But, more than that, some of them have told me to my surprise that they have me in mind at an earlier stage; while they are writing. Some of them have me loom over their shoulder as they type; others of them hear me in their heads, remonstrating or laughing. They all know I’ll be reading next after them. Poor authors. Even though my hope is that my reading is an act of love and empathy and compassion; that is what I am aiming for.
Every writer should find a reader, because we write so well and with so much more urgency and clarity and intent when we know for whom we are writing. A reader helps us to make sense of what it is we are trying to say; confirms our version of events. I wouldn’t be able to write this blog without knowing that you are reading it; it wouldn’t exist at all without the specific attentive reading offered by a couple of people close to me.
When we love a story, as readers, we dive into it and inhabit it; we let it rewrite our own experiences. We use it as a light to shine on our lives and to cast new perspective on ourselves – to pull parts of ourselves out of the shadows. We enter into an exchange with the author. And this is why every author needs a reader – without the reader the writing conversation is incomplete, the creative circle broken.
Indeed, one of the pieces of advice most regularly offered to writers is to ‘know your reader’. When I read a new manuscript – one which hasn’t been written with me in mind – one of the first tests to which I put it is to query for whom it is written. Who will love this story? What kind of person? Understanding the market is in part about this need to find a reader for your work. What do people want from fiction at the moment? What are they looking for, from you? Who is buying novels and where, and when, and why? And yet another adage is to ‘write something you would want to read’. And so, if you lack a reader, write for yourself. In this way, novelling can be like journalling – a Sorting Out of the ideas and dreams in your own head, a conversation with yourself, or selves. With the self you are now, or the one you’d like to be, or could have been, or used to be.
You might not be writing a novel today; perhaps you’ll write a letter instead. Or a note, or a considerate email, or a birthday card with a real message, or a gay instruction to a colleague (like the ones we receive from Petra, a beloved member of the DHA accounts team, who accompanies each emailed list of payments with a joke or insight or wish). Your readers will be so grateful. And later, you or they might piece together your emails, your cards, those recipes, the kind instructions, the tweets and the journals and find a pretty good story; one worth treasuring.
The illustration I have used this week is of my beautiful late mother-in-law, whose handwriting I treasure, whose love was great. Lovely Cynthia, who brought a thousand babies into the world as a midwife, and four of her own, and who wrote diaries and letters and memoir and messages on notepads by her bed and instructions to herself on her kitchen wall and yet never a novel. But I can imagine what it would have been, and how much I would have loved it. I was her glad reader; I knew what she meant. Thank you all for knowing what I mean, too.