Serendipitous Encounters

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It’s very difficult to know how, or even if, a story will affect you.

We think we know what we like and why we like it, but a lot of the time we actually don’t. Sometimes you pick up something you think you will like, something that you should like, and it leaves little to no impression on you. Perhaps you even dislike it! By all accounts, I should love Game of Thrones. It has high fantasy, political intrigue, complex characters, and dragons. And yet I have never warmed up to it. Other times you pick up something on a lark and are surprised to find out much it moves you, how deeply it sinks into your psyche and plays upon your heartstrings. How was I to know that tagging along with my friends to the theater on May 4, 2012 would send me careening head-first into the world of Marvel comics and superheroes?

Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. Books or films that I loved as a kid sometimes tarnish with time, and others that I might have loved as a kid I discover too late to appreciate. I made a point of reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger when I was in college because I’d heard that that was the best time to appreciate it. That reading it a few years earlier or later would diminish the connection or understanding I might have for the character. (Despite this, I remember next to nothing about the story or the character now.) In contrast, I tried reading The Silmarillion when I was thirteen or fourteen, which was far too early for me to appreciate it. But when I returned in my early thirties, it all made sense and I loved it.

And sometimes it’s the medium. The same story told in different formats can have a vastly different impact. I’ve never been able to enjoy reading the plays of Shakespeare. Scripts in general are inscrutable to me because I don’t hear words when I read, so I don’t hear the tone of voice, and with only stage directions, I can’t see the facial expressions, so all the emotions fall flat. But watching Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V moved me to tears. Another example is Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The book was enjoyable enough but didn’t resonate with me (partly because I think I read it too late in life). But David Tennant and Michael Sheen brought Crowley and Aziraphale to life on screen in a way they never were for me on the page, and I am endlessly fascinated and enthralled by the performance. The story is in my head now, and it refuses to leave.

All of this, I think, illustrates that, since we really have no idea how the stories of others will affect us, we also have little to no control over how our stories will affect others. You can’t really write to please everyone, or really anyone except yourself. One should keep a general audience in mind, but you ultimately have no idea who may read the words you write. There are so many factors at play within a reader, from age to life circumstances, that may help pull them deeper into the book, or make them put it back on the shelf. And that decision may have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of your work. You may have created the closest thing to literary perfection that there is, but if the reader is too old, too young, or just not in the mood, then they may pass you by or decide they don’t like it. By the same token, a book may not be brilliant, but if it finds a reader to resonate with, then the objective quality doesn’t matter as much. Not to them, at least.

So, loosen up, tell the demons of Perfectionism to bugger off, and get back to writing.


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