The following is a chapter from Mary Allen’s upcoming book, Bending the Spoon:
Writing as a Path to Faith, Truth, Mindfulness, Humility, and Just About Any Other
Spiritual Practice You Can Think Of. We’ll be publishing more of Mary Allen’s
musings about how writing teaches us lessons about how to live, in the
months to come.
Meeting the Reader – or Whoever – Halfway
By: Mary Allen
When I was in the Writers’ Workshop back in the 1980s, Frank Conroy, the director of the Workshop and my teacher for one semester, said something in class one day that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you have to meet your reader exactly halfway. No more and no less.” He held both hands up in the air and made a semi-circle with one hand and another semi-circle with the other and touched his two index fingers together at exactly the top of the two semicircles.
“If you go too far into the reader’s space” – his right hand retreated a little and his left hand pushed into that part of the imaginary circle – “the reader will lose interest because you’re telling them stuff they already know, or that they need to figure out for themselves.
The reader needs the freedom to participate in the story, to experience the story, and to do that they need some space to draw conclusions themselves.
“But if you don’t go far enough to meet the reader, if you don’t give the reader what they need to know,” he went on, pulling down his left hand a little so his fingertips no longer met at the top, “the reader won’t know what the hell’s going on. They won’t be able to picture the scene, they’ll get confused, and their attention will wander away from the story.”
Everyone in the workshop – all fifteen of us sitting around the table in the windowless room that day – nodded and looked at Frank attentively, as if we were getting it. But I’m not sure now that we were. I thought I knew what he was saying, but it’s taken me years of writing, helping other people write, and living, to really feel the truth of Frank’s statement. To understand how profound his analysis of the relationship between the writer and the reader truly was.
He was talking about writing fiction, but I’ve found that what he said holds equally true when you’re writing a memoir. (When I attended the Writers’ Workshop back in the ’80s, I thought I was going to be writing novels and short stories for the rest of my life, but I was eventually drawn to memoir, using my own life as a lens to see the story through.) Furthermore, and more importantly, I’ve found that what Frank said about the writer needing to meet the reader halfway and no more and no less, is also true in a certain way in life.
It’s just one example among many of how writing teaches us lessons about living – of how what you need to do to write well is also what you need to do to live well.
Writing doesn’t just teach us these lessons; it doesn’t just give us the information and then leave us alone so we can go home and try to use it, the way teaching happens in high school and in other parts of life.
Writing forces us to do these things, it forces us to practice all of its spiritual lessons. We have to practice them if we want to write well and so we do, because we want to be good writers above all else, and we can’t be good writers if we don’t practice them. We might not even know we’re practicing them, and most of the time we don’t have a clue we’re learning spiritual lessons – learning important things about how to live, by practicing them, over and over, as we write, getting better and better at them little by little.
But we are.
The other day in the shower, I was thinking about what Frank said about the writer needing to meet the reader exactly halfway, no more and no less. For some reason that little lesson has been coming up a lot lately in my writing coaching. A couple of my clients have been withholding important pieces of information in their stories – either unintentionally or because they think it’s a way to create suspense – and I have some other clients who over-tell to make sure the reader gets it, and in both cases I keep bringing up Frank and that image of the writer and the reader needing to meet exactly halfway, at the top of the circle.
It’s a hard concept to grasp and I’m not sure I can always explain it so it’s understandable. Even if I do get the idea across it can’t always be translated by the writer onto the page, and that’s when I also say that with writing you can’t get anything perfect the first time or maybe even the next time or the time after that or ever. All you can do is keep coming back to it and trying to do the best you can.
Writing has a lot to teach us about our own perfectionism – that’s one of the many lessons it has for us – but I’m going to write about that another day.
Today I want to say something more about this meeting halfway at the exact top of the circle business. When I was thinking about it in the shower the other day, it came to me that there’s a perfect analogue to that principle when it comes to relationships.
In fact, I’ve been working on it in my own relationships for almost as long as I’ve been working on writing. There was a certain time in my life when I was friends with, and/or dating, several people who were struggling with alcoholism. As a kid I had been affected by my mother’s alcoholism and mental illness and as an adult I found myself struggling with my friends’ struggles with alcoholism, as well as with other friends’ struggles with whatever they were struggling with. I was struggling all over the place with stuff I had no control over, and eventually I found myself in a twelve-step program for people who are struggling with other people’s drinking. I’ve stuck with that program for many years, and it has given me a path for personal growth and healing.
I’ve stuck with writing too, and in my life the two paths, writing and personal healing, have actually been fairly similar. There are no twelve-step meetings for writers although sometimes I think there should be, but otherwise the practice is pretty much the same. When you write you have to show up, day in and day out, you have to pay attention to your thoughts as they are translated into words on the page. And it’s the same thing with personal healing. You show up and practice it, day in and day out. You pay attention to your words, thoughts, and actions; you do the best you can on any given day.
The main lesson I’ve learned in my twelve-step program, I realized the other day in the shower, is how to meet someone exactly halfway at the top of the circle: how not to try to control someone’s drinking, or, pretty much, anyone’s anything else; how to let people be who they are, how to give them the space and the dignity to make their own choices and suffer their own consequences, how to let them rise to the top of their own semi-circles. How to avoid overstepping my half of the circle and invading their space, in all kinds of ways, from giving advice to rescuing and over-protecting to manipulating with kindness or with covert threats to out-and-out controlling: yelling, demanding, grabbing, insisting over and over.
Sometimes – actually most of the time – the controlling happens inside my own mind: I’m doing all the yelling, demanding, threatening, cajoling – silently, in my head. I’m obsessing, giving people silent lectures, imagining their responses and composing silent rebuttals, even editing my rebuttals to make them as convincing as possible.
In the meantime, life passes me by: I have no idea what’s going on around me, all my thoughts are consumed by my impotent attempts to control the other person. The person I’ve been silently lecturing doesn’t have a clue a clue about what I’ve been “saying” to him, but he reacts to it anyway – I’m convinced that that happens. I haven’t actually done much of this kind of controlling in recent years but I did enough of it before that to fill a lifetime, and I can easily fall back into it if the right situation arises.
It’s a little harder to see how this kind of controlling fits in with the two semi-circles meeting at the top. What’s most obvious is that you, as the silent controller, certainly aren’t balanced up at the top of the circle; you’re living over on the other side of the circle, you’re not in your own semi-circle at all.
I’ve learned that when you step beyond your semi-circle into the other person’s semi-circle, in whatever way, you set up something I’ve heard called, in certain spiritual books, a “forcing current.” It’s like a psychological application of some law of physics: If you push on something, you push it away. So you can actually make someone not want to do something if you try to make them do it, especially if you try repeatedly, over and over, through nagging, yelling, crying, guilt- mongering, etc.
In writing, you can make someone lose interest in what’s going on in a story if you force your own interpretations on them. If you tell the reader a character is a good person, it subtly pushes the reader’s own judgments and perceptions about that character aside.
On the other hand, you do have to describe the character and his actions in enough concrete neutral detail for the reader to be able to see and judge the character herself. And you do have to step up to the top of the circle in your life and say what you want and need.
You just can’t shove your way into the other guy’s half of the circle and make him give it to you.
Life at the top of the circle is good, though it requires some effort to stay there. I’m constantly sliding to one side or the other and having to scramble back up to the top. But I like it up there.
As well as learning how to stay more or less out of the other guy’s semi-circle, I’ve learned how to rise to the top of my own: how to show up instead of running away – show up for other people and for myself – how to be the best person I can possibly be. Doing this has vastly improved my ability to stay in the moment and enjoy the day and it’s helped my relationships a lot.
Doing it in the writing has made me pay attention to the details, to slow down and see what I’m not seeing, in that gap at the top, on my side of the circle, and that has taught me both how to write and how to live.