The Most Important Question
"I refuse to write for more people than I can listen to."
That quote, from the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, has been tacked to my writing wall for years now, as a beacon. A guiding principle. Every now and then it becomes less theoretical, more practical - and therefore more of a challenge. A test, where I again consider and choose to either affirm or deny it as a truth to which I subscribe.
For the last six weeks I've been on a book tour. Eighteen cities. Almost 10,000 travel miles. And it has been amazing. A chance to connect with old friends. To meet readers. To cultivate new ones. There have been nights where I ride the giddy wave of feeling successful – Los Angeles, where Lisa Borders and I packed Book Soup in West Hollywood; Pittsburgh, where thanks to Sherrie Flick, I have always felt like an Important (and loved) Writer – and nights where I most definitely don't. Nights where, despite all efforts of travel and promotion, of reaching out and goading, one or two or three people turn out.
But to focus on turnout misses the point in more ways than one. The one that matters in this context is the reader-writer connection. My beacon. And that happens one reader – one human – at a time.
I write the kinds of stories – and books – that aren't easily classifiable. A familiar response from agents I've had is, This is terrific but I don't know how to sell it. It isn't quite X and it isn't quite Y. My mentor in graduate school told me a version of the same thing when we first met. You're going to have a difficult time publishing, he told me. You've got one foot in the postmodern camp, and one foot in the mainstream literary camp, and you're not going to be pure enough of either for a lot of people in either group.
And he was right. But that's exactly what interests me in my work. Exploring the gaps, the cracks, the spaces in between. The connections. So I had a choice. I could turn from that in order to be embraced (maybe) more widely. Or I could own what interests me and try to do it to the best of my ability, always striving within that to build a bridge to more readers (to not be exclusive).
What it comes down to for me, for any of us, is the question why do I write? The answer we give to that will determine many of the choices we make professionally. And with any answer, we will gain some readers and lose others. My answer goes something like this: I write to try to make sense of my world. To explore, celebrate, and occasionally gain insight into what I see around me, and the rich mystery of what happens between people. I write, to paraphrase Nicole Krauss, in order to participate in the ongoing conversation about what it means to be human.
And when I travel on a book tour, that's my best opportunity to listen. Sure, social media is great. Essential. But on book tour, it's face time. The richest form of the conversation. And the time when my guiding principle comes to ground. When a total of one person coming out to a reading on a snowy night in January can be either a disaster that proves I'm the failure I often suspect I am, or a golden opportunity to focus my listening. To engage a conversation.
It's a choice, in that moment. And a really hard one. I know. I've been there. And I'm not free of ego. Not immune to the desire to be adored by throngs. And I didn't handle that moment perfectly. Not on that night in Buffalo. And not when variations on it have inevitably recurred.
But I do try to get past the initial feelings of disappointment (devastation) and humiliation to recognize the deeper truth: this is a reader, a fellow human, a voice in the conversation I value most. And I try to engage.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean