Footprints in our minds

(crossposted from mad genius club — http://madgeniusclub.blogspot.com/)

I suppose everyone has seen the hallmark-like poem that goes "Some people come into our lives and quickly leave, but others stay for a while, leave footprints in our hearts and afterwards we are never, ever the same."

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about writers and the special relationship between a writer and a reader. Those of you who know me have heard my occasional rant about the big conglomerates controlling publishing houses today and mandating publishing by the numbers. If anyone truly hankers to hear me get on my soap box, please feel free to ask. This isn’t it. This is more about how much – as a reader – I miss the way writers and readers used to have a relationship.

 

Well, the relationship was mostly imagined on the writers’ side – as I now know. During a very bad period in my writing career, I tried to walk away from it all in an innovative way. By then I knew there was no possible way I could stop writing, as such. It just wasn’t in me. I’d given up on writing hundreds of times before, but I always kept coming back. So this time I tried it an easier way – I thought. I thought "I’ll just write fan fiction. I’ll just write for myself and my friends." So, what happened? Well, I found that I couldn’t do it. The other half of the relationship wasn’t there. I need to imagine I’m writing for readers – many readers. It’s what gives me a challenge and something to aim for. And I need to know I must continue improving or be side lined. So, on the side of the author there is this – largely imaginary, because we don’t know each of you on the other side – relationship with our readers.

On the other side the relationship is more solid. Strange, mind you, but more solid. When I started reading – yes, when books were carved on stone with chisels – I read pretty much everything that came to hand. Though I thought I was terribly busy then, life was very simple. I was a teen and had limited commitments. So I could read five, six paperbacks a day, something that now only happens on my rare vacations. Most of the authors I read, I forgot. They were "good enough" but not amazing. They entertained me for an hour or so – for which I am grateful – but they left no mark in my mind. Having the world’s worst memory for names and faces, as I do, they often didn’t even leave behind more than a vague memory.

Other writers… well… other writers were not so forgettable. This doesn’t mean that I was in utter wonder of them. Most of the time I wasn’t. But I found they did something I liked. At times no more than feel or an environment they described in detail and to which I wanted to return. Sometimes characters I wanted to know more about. Sometimes an attitude, a way of seeing the world.

To these authors I returned time and time again, getting used to their world, till all their points of reference became familiar to me.

This still happens. Of course, it does. Terry Pratchett. F. Paul Wilson. Those are the "newest" authors – and granted, I read Pratchett first 17 years ago but still, relatively recently in the reader-author relationship – to become part of my mental landscape. When I am in the grocery store an comment to my son that a certain type of melon is an abomination onto Nugan, it works because he too has been in that world and knows my touchstone. When, talking to a friend, I say a mutual acquaintance is "almost repairman Jack" I’m hitting a landscape we both know. Those people have left footprints in our minds, and in the minds of a few hundred thousand like us.

So, what am I complaining about? Well… The fact that the newest of these relationships I have were formed seventeen and ten years ago.

Is it that I don’t look for new authors? Hardly. I look constantly and in all sorts of venues. You see, I’m practically publishing’s captive audience. I don’t watch TV – not a brag, I just don’t. Most of the stuff on doesn’t interest me. I might watch two or three movies a year, and re-watch another ten. Maybe. I don’t play computer games – oh, okay, mah jong but only when I’m sick. So, other than being writer, mother, pet-owner, cook, bottle washer and such, the only thing I do for fun is read.

And it’s not that I haven’t found authors I love. I have over the years found people in all grades of "I’d read more of him/her" – from "This is eminently tolerable bubble gum" to "Oh, wow, I’ve got to find his next book." The problem is that in most cases, by the time I find this author, they have two or three books out. This in itself is good, of course. I can read them all. But the problem is that after that there isn’t any other book. Those first books failed to reach an audience – more than likely thousands of people like me who never heard of them – and the author is either no longer writing, or has moved on and got a name I can’t find.

I don’t know if this is good business practice – it would seem to me it isn’t. At least because if other people react as I do, it’s starting to give some of us a fear of commitment to new authors. "I don’t want to read her. What if I like her, and then there’s no more?" But perhaps people don’t react as I do. Perhaps the bean counters are correct. I don’t know. I’m not other people. I just wish somehow I could magically return to the old days where I could find an author and know we were going to have a relationship for five, ten, fifteen years or longer.

We humans are not just who we are born. Instinct seems to be negligible in us, as compared to other animals. Oh, it’s there, but we need something else – we need those footprints in our minds, to show us the way.

6 thoughts on “Footprints in our minds

  1. I hadn’t thought of how important those touch-stones are, but you’re right; they are few and special to me. What amazes me is hearing the authors I love talk about reading multiple books in a DAY. I think my record so far is one book in two days … and that’s a long shot sort of record. At what point did the five, six paperbacks a day, come about for you?

    1. Ah. Five, six paperbacks was between the ages of… oh, 8 and 20. Nowadays I’m much slower, mostly because I get interrupted a lot more, and also because writing really is a lot more absorbing than highschool or college. I read maybe three fiction books a week now — though of course I read A LOT of non fiction. I go slower on those, though, since I am usually reading for a purpose or in pursuit of something specific.
      On vacation I revert to my reading habits, though. Part of this is that I read while doing whatever else I’m doing — though I’ve found it’s easier on the book and me if I LISTEN to audio books while cleaning, particularly bathrooms and kitchen ;). If you’re ever in a museum, amusement park or attraction and see a middle aged woman slip a book from her pocket and read while the kids and husband linger, come on over and say hi, there’s a good chance it’s me. 🙂

      1. I used to read like that. It was a rare high school day that I didn’t bring three library books home to read after finishing homework.
        When my kids were in elementary, I formed the habit of going to the main library once a week to catch up on all the magazines, usually coming home with an armload of books.
        Once I discovered the internet, that took up a large chunk of my reading time, and now writing has gone from an occasional flailing try to actual finished manuscripts, I have a stack books waiting to be read – and collecting dust.
        My mother would faint if she saw it.

  2. I don’t have all (or even most of) the answers.
    However, some of the things you brought up were part of my motivation for starting a small press.

  3. I have a couple of relationships like that going now, where I’ve read all ther is out there and have to wait for the next book to come out. Luckily both these authors are coming out with a new book every year or two, so I know it’s a relationship that will continue, but it’s so hard to wait for the next book instalment. It takes a certain type of book to tempt me like this and sadly the writing I like to read is not what the publishing houses like to push on to the public.

    1. I think when you discover a new author, who has a sizable backlist, and you read it all in a short period, the impact is much larger than reading at the pace of production. The pace makes a difference, in most cases. Possibly just that it makes a single large spot in the memory pool, or possibly one reads them so fast because of the mentally invigorating effect of the previous book(s).
      This is quite apart from the individual books that make a huge impact. I read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress years apart; they each made deep and abiding footprints in my mind.

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