ROANOKE REGIONAL WRITERS CONFERENCE 2010
Okay, I don’t know WHAT I’m doing here. There are people who write novels, and serious non-fiction books, and journalists—those are the people I think of as the real writers. Not someone like me, who pops up on the radio for three minutes between news segments, babbling about whether or not I can still fit into my wedding dress or confessing to having kids with head lice.
I don’t even rise to the level of small potatoes. I’m, like, micro-potatoes.
When Dan Smith asked me to write a speech, I said, “Um, okay.” Why did I do that? What was I thinking? (That’s what I’ve been saying to myself for the past month or two!) Why did I commit to writing this speech for you all?
Well, why do we commit to writing anything? Why do we do this? First of all, I figured I have that potential for perhaps NOT disgracing myself. And that’s always a selling point for me.
Plus, maybe, I thought, if I write this thing, that strange writer’s phenomenon will happen.
Now, what I’m talking about is something that writers do that is so satisfying (oh, way beyond satisfying – it’s addictive!) and this something doesn’t happen as a result of everything we write, but just knowing that the possibility could be just around the corner is enough to keep us going.
My theory is that just the thought of this thing happening lights up some little corner of the writer’s brain the way certain drugs do.
(And, no, I’m not talking getting paid!)
The addictive something is that ZAP! like a charge of static electricity, which, if you’re lucky, shoots from the writer’s mind to the reader’s mind. And if you’re extremely lucky, and an exceptionally good writer, that mind-zap can happen even after you’re dead. Long dead.
Because I think we write in order to connect with another mind. And every once in a while, there’s a connection between writer and reader whereby the reader gets to a certain passage and is just stunned.
The writer has articulated something the reader has always thought, but maybe has never put it into words.
Or the writer has drawn a conclusion that now seems so obvious, but had been hidden from the reader until this magnificent mind-zap occurred.
So, that’s why I said “Yes” to Dan and wrote this speech. Because maybe that zap will happen between me and one person in the audience.
And I need one more hit, one more dose of this drug.
Do you remember receiving your first literary zap? Maybe that was the moment you decided you wanted to be a writer. Having experienced it, you must have wanted to give that kind of experience to someone else.
(And I know this has happened to you. If that hadn’t happened to you, you wouldn’t be here tonight.)
For me, it was a very simple thing.
I was 11 years old, and opened a copy of Readers Digest to find a story entitled, “The Triumph of Janis Babson.” It was the story of a little girl, around my age, who died of leukemia, and had donated her eyes—her corneas.
Now, I didn’t know anyone with leukemia, and knew nothing about organ donation, but the first line of the story grabbed me. Why?
Because Janis Babson spelled her first name with an “s”, the way I do. And the first line of the story was, “’That’s Janis, with an s,’ she would gravely inform you.”
The fact that we shared a name made an irrationally huge impression on me.
Zap! The author had me from the first line and I just fell into the story as though I knew her. From then on, I thought how wonderful it would be to bring a moment like that to an audience of thousands, or millions.
Of course, my zap was a totally narcissistic phenomenon: I recognized myself in the name of the protagonist, and that was enough!
And isn’t that what’s going on when that connection happens between writer and reader?
The writer has led us back to ourselves.
We recognize ourselves in what someone else has written, and it feels good. It feels cozy. We see the reflection of our opinions, our weaknesses, our aspirations. We’re not alone – we’re part of something larger.
I think you write because you want to make that happen. You knew it existed before you ever set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, because, as a reader and listener, it has happened to you. So you think, “I want to do that! I want to be on the giving end of the zap.”
And as wonderful as it truly is to connect with a single listener or reader, having a wide audience is, essentially, heroin.
There’s a radio program broadcast on NPR stations – it’s called “Marketplace,” and I appeared sporadically on “Marketplace” from 2000 to around 2003—with an audience of a few million listeners—and my fellow commentators were people like Robert Reich, the former Harvard professor and former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.
Now, Reich talked about the dot-com bubble and the ensuing recession, and I talked about things like how I like to pig out on Coca Cola and Cheez Doodles when my husband is out of town.
I’m no Robert Reich, but I like to think that, among those listeners, some of them were laughing and enjoying those few minutes carved out of gloomy economic news to think about their own secret pleasures – and maybe not feel so alone in the world. Someone else thinks the same way, has the same weaknesses.
Because, the thing is, I am a slob and a fool, and I don’t particularly care who knows it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret of what small success I may have attained.
In my opinion, if your goal, when writing, is to make yourself look good—as though you are evolved, you’ve got it together, got it all figured out—then your writing will be deadly dull.
Why? Well, for one thing, we’ll all know you’re lying.
Because nobody has it figured out. Yes, we do have our moments of solidity and illumination, but those moments slip away like a dream does in the morning while you’re brushing your teeth.
The truth is, we all lurch from one day to the next, hoping no one will catch on to how adrift we feel. When that is expressed in writing, the reader feels that soul-to-soul spark (even while laughing) – the reader gets that downright spiritual feeling of not being alone in the universe, that we are all connected – if only by our insecurities!
One time, it was the middle of the night, and I woke up and sat straight up in bed and I had no idea who I was. All I could think was: Who am I supposed to be THIS time? And still, I had no idea. It wasn’t coming back to me. So I shook my husband awake and said to him, “Who am I? What’s my name?”
Harry was none too pleased with this, and he said, without even opening his eyes, “You’re Janis Jaquith. Now go back to sleep.”
I don’t know why that happened. I’ve always suspected that we’ve lived many lives, inhabited many bodies. So I suppose it only makes sense that I could forget, for a few minutes, what character I’m currently playing.
And so often, as I inhabit this life of mine, I want to call out, the way actors do during rehearsals. When they forget their next line of dialogue, actors call out, “Line!” I want to do that, so someone can feed my next line of dialogue, because so often, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.
It can seem like everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing here, that they’re comfortable in their own skin and know where they fit in. But I think it’s an illusion. I don’t think that’s what it’s like for other people at all.
I feel like I’m hacking my way through a jungle of information, with stimuli coming at me every second, and I’m constantly trying to figure out how I fit in. Who am I in relation to all this other stuff?
And so, it’s a relief to encounter stories. They can be spoken stories or written ones, fictional or factual, but through stories I get to learn about myself by comparing myself with other people.
Every story is a metaphor and a yardstick. Whether it’s a story about Tiger Woods or about a hero on a mythic journey in a fantasy novel, or a story about Haitians digging through the rubble to find their loved-ones— all these stories are guideposts that help us define and redefine, in every moment, who we are in relation to them.
I can read a story about Tiger Woods and think, “Well, now, I would never behave like that.” Or read a novel about a woman who sails alone around the world and think, “Well, jeez Louise, I wonder if I could do such a thing?”
(Rita Rudner once said that when she reads a cookbook, it’s like reading science fiction. She gets to the end, closes the book and says, “Well, that’s never gonna happen!”)
But what keeps those writers – the journalists, the bloggers, the authors— at it, when the competition is so fierce and the financial rewards so small?
I was watching the movie Shakespeare in Love a few weeks ago, and wondered whether Shakespeare ever considered a more lucrative line of work. I wonder whether his wife or his father suggested he get a more reliable source of income.
Because we know now that, through the centuries, untold numbers of theatre-goers and readers have been knocked flat by Shakespeare’s writing. But he didn’t know that would happen.
I imagine him in the audience, back in the late 1500s, paying rapt attention—not to his play, but to the audience and their laughter and tears. And maybe his blood pressure was rising because someone nearby was nodding off during the really good parts.
Years ago, my husband and I wrote a play that won a contest, and when it was produced, I was astonished to hear the audience laughing out loud at what we’d written. I looked around at these people—perfect strangers—and marveled at the fact that we’d made them laugh.
That was my first experience on the giving end of a mind-zap. I thought: Oh, I want to do this again!
Now, we all have to come up with some way to support our food and shelter habits, (And if my only means of support came from what I make from writing, I’d be living in a van, down by the river.) But I am grateful that so many people continue to write, even if the financial rewards are, for many of us, minimal or non-existent.
We never made a dime from that play. It’s the non-financial rewards that keep me going.
About ten years ago, I wrote a long essay about what it feels like to be a kid with attention deficit disorder – because I’ve got it and I was that kid. The essay has never been broadcast, and it’s never been in my newspaper columns, because, at about 1200 words, it’s too long.
I wrote it and performed it once for teachers and parents at an elementary school, and I included it in my book (but the book only sold 2,000 copies)—but it’s also available on my website, for free, and it has been disseminated widely on the Internet.
And I’ve gotten many emails from people all over the country, and in Canada, who have read it, and nearly every person who contacts me reports that they were moved to tears by what they read.
Now, a normal person (by normal, I mean someone who doesn’t share our compulsion to write) a normal person would find this upsetting. But when someone tells me I made them cry because of something that I wrote— Well, if they’re telling me in person, I say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” But inwardly, I’m going, “YES!”
It’s the same reaction I had when a woman told me she had to pull her car over to the side of the road when she was listening to my essay “Birdseed Cookies” on the radio – she was laughing too hard to drive.
Either way, whether it’s laughter, tears, or just intense absorption in what I’ve written – this is as good as it gets for a writer.
Although, if the truth be told, you may write and write, and never experience that. Never know that you’ve reached out and zapped a reader, maybe never have an audience at all in your lifetime.
But if you’re a good writer, you have a shot at life after death. The audience for your writing may not have been born yet.
It could be a recipe in a cookbook you wrote, it could be the journal you kept in 2009 that your great great great granddaughter picks up a century or two from now.
It could be the magazine article or newspaper column or book that is unearthed years or centuries from now that will make someone see the world in a different light. (Well, as long as it’s printed out somewhere! If it only exists in electronic form, you’re screwed.)
Consider just a handful of writers: Anne Frank, Mark Twain, Aristophanes, Jane Austen, James Thurber, Emily Dickinson, Frank McCourt, Julia Child – all dead, but they each leave behind a body of work.
And hidden in those pages are minefields of zaps just waiting to happen. Waiting for the right reader to come along at just the right moment.
So, whether you’re a small-potatoes writer or a Pulitzer Prize winner, if what you write one day leads to that soul-stunning zap in the mind of a reader, all that time you spend writing, revising, editing, and then rewriting and polishing is worth it.
What you are doing has tremendous value.