How to Write a Failed Novel, Part 2

You can believe in Myth 2: Good writers don’t need help. All they need is genius. As a student of mine in a college writing course once wrote in his evaluation, “Writing is about showing your genius to the world.”

Oh, yeah?

All right, there are geniuses out there. I’ve never taught one. But I’ve taught lots of students who thought they had genius. If I didn’t swoon over their writing, I was revealing my philistine ignorance. Only geniuses know genius when they see it.

I just remember too well when I thought I had a flicker of genius, and how painfully I learned that I don’t.

What I did learn, and what I tell students: You don’t know what you’ve written until somebody reads it and tells you.

This isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes a reader tells you things about something you’ve written that you never dreamed you were saying, and you find that you don’t mind saying it at all.

Another way of putting it: Texts belong to readers. Once that page leaves your hands, they’re going to do with it what they like. You thought it was about the power of love; they think it’s about surviving betrayal. You thought it was about truth; they think it’s about family. They don’t write you back and ask. They read the way they want to read.

Here’s a quote that I now use to open my syllabus each term:

“The existence of the text is a silent existence, silent until the moment in which a reader reads it. Only when the able eye makes contact with the markings on the tablet does the text come to active life. All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.”

–Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading (qtd. in Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read 12)

All writing depends on the generosity of the reader. How many of us, when we write, ever really think about readers that way?

And if you haven’t read Reading in the Brain, I highly recommend it. A wonderful window on what goes on in our heads when we read.

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