“It has to be about the reader,” began Philip Gerard. “If not, what am I doing with your book?”
Gerard’s keynote that Friday opened the recent River Teeth Nonfiction Conference at Ashland University in northeast Ohio. His opening words hung in the air. I tried to claw my way back to them. Yes. That’s it. Talk about that. Only he moved on into his focus, the allure and the power of research. He’d stated a profundity—in practice, a paradox— about writing and publishing and just as quickly left it. Upon reflection, his intended connection was obvious: give good content.
But what’s good? What does serving the reader mean? “Why should I read your story?” haunts writers, especially those of personal essays and memoirs. (And even if writers can answer for themselves, editors and publishers will rule before regular readers can.) How many celebrated books have you not finished? What did most readers like? At base maybe there’s character, or at least personality, that we respond to. Before that, there’s technique. Hence the endless discussions about craft at Ashland in those last days of May.
Before the writing conference, I’d ended my teaching year, undergone 2.5 weeks of Hospice volunteer training, and attended a camp for schoolteachers on how better to teach English to non-native speakers. Pedagogy was much on my mind. I’d had my own best teaching semester ever. I’d marveled at the information, enculturation, and student involvement fostered at Hospice and at the way my Otterbein University colleagues taught a classroom full of teachers. At Ashland, there were those thrilling flashes of insight between presenters and audience.
Just people helping people, trying to teach them—always a compelling meta-narrative. Maybe the oldest story in the book.