Writers complain a lot about how hard their work is. But dipping into Peter Elbow’s 1981 classic Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (2nd edition, 1998) gave me a new appreciation for what readers are up against. Start with this insight: it’s readers who bring meaning to texts. For every word a writer uses, the reader must supply its meaning, either from pre-existing knowledge or from looking up the damned thing.
“Meanings are in readers, not in words,” writes Elbow. “When the page says chat, English readers bring thoughts of a cozy conversation; French readers bring thoughts about cats. Readers build meanings; words just sit there.”
For a writer, obviously, this means you must get readers to construct your story and its meaning. Elbow says this is akin to asking readers to make a sculpture, using a pile of limp balloons they must inflate, from your instructions. Or it’s like making them pedal a bike—do all the work—while you steer. He elaborates on this idea of the reader as creator:
You can’t give readers a finished product no matter how much you want to—any more than a playwright can actually send a live play through the mail. She can only send the script—a set of directions for producing a play. The best you can do is make sure you have overhauled the bicycle so that the pedalling isn’t harder than necessary. You can promise not to go up unnecessary hills. You can make sure there aren’t any holes in the balloons or misprints in the paint-by-numbers picture that would make the tree come out purple—unless you want it purple. But no matter how good a job you do of preparing the piece of writing, still the reader has to do all the work of pedalling, blowing, or painting-by-numbers.
So maybe, with work, readers can take your meaning. But Elbow then asks how can they have the experience you wish? This is a second layer of work, which requires the readers’ consent, as well as their supplying the imaginative or psychic energy necessary to form an image. Elbow uses an example of his trying to read a flawed novel, in which he was also frustrated with its author, a student, and explains:
Whenever in the past I had stopped reading because of this kind of frustration, I had tended to describe it as a case of the writing ‘not working.’ For the first time I now realized that beneath most cases of words not working lies an act of refusal by the reader. (There are, I admit, some cases where the reader doesn’t refuse and tries as hard as she can and still gets no meaning or experience. But readers usually refuse to try any more long before they’ve really given their all.) . . .
What emerged finally was this distinction which now seems so important to me: I allowed that writer access to my mind, but I didn’t allow her access to my experience. It’s as though I were a musician reading the score for a symphony on paper in silence. I was looking at it, seeing what key it was in, seeing what kinds of melodies and harmonies it uses, how it blends winds and brass, seeing where it is loud, dramatic, quiet, and so on—all without hearing any sounds in my head. I was doing a competent job of reading the directions for the production of music, but it would have taken an extra piece of effort, an additional investment of self—however automatic or subliminal that effort might be for a good musician who enjoys what she is reading—actually to hear the sounds, to experience the music.
At every moment, he emphasizes, the reader makes a choice whether to merely to get the gist—to read the directions—or to continue to invest the effort to have the experience implied in the words. In the hands of a skillful writer, a reader may feel the writer is giving her the experience—but she’s given her consent and is supplying the energy. The directions were clear, fun, easy, and the reader had and maintained the desire to do the work of decoding.
Is it any wonder that professional writers tend to write simply? That they emphasize vivid showing (scenes) rather than abstract telling (summary) to convey human experience? Elbow’s insights give me some sympathy with students who bounce off challenging prose and just give up. It explains the fatigue I sometimes feel in reading a student writer’s work that requires me to do far too much work. And it explains why some of my own writing has been rejected: too much effort for insufficient reward.
There’s another factor, Elbow says: Trust. Sometimes readers lose heart because the instructions are poor or the subject doesn’t interest them, but in others they may not trust the writer. “There are lots of experiences that I won’t let writers persuade me to create for myself till I trust them,” he explains. “No one can make me feel terrified or make me cry unless somehow she wins my trust. Thus, a piece of writing is likely to fail with me if someone tries to put an intensely scary or sad scene right at the beginning. I simply won’t row if she steers me toward that waterfall. I won’t let her play with my feelings. Yet, often the very experience I refuse to create for myself in the opening page or two is one that I am willing to have later on, after I have become involved—which is the same as saying after I have come to trust the writer.”
For Elbow, trust is built by a writer who begins her story by talking, telling an interesting idea or starting a narrative, or by describing a room or landscape, easing him in. He needs to experience the texture of the writer’s mind. The writer, he believes, must be completely focused on the experience she wants the reader to have—not on how she’s manipulating him. He says readers also pick up signals when a writer is trying too hard. And they resent it when the writer uses taboo subjects like sex or violence simply to capture attention and consent. On the other hand, readers may consent to go along with an overpowering writer whom they’d run from in person. Children, he warns, are literally more “impressionable”—more likely to create an unwelcome experience—and so must be protected until they develop their powerful refusal muscles later in adolescence.
Next: Elbow’s advice to writers on rendering experience.