Friday, February 6, 2015

Revere your Reader

Last week, I read two very different books (for very different classes): Chomp, a young adult novel by the Florida all-star, Carl Hiaasen, and Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small. 

In our conversation about Chomp during my middle grade novel class, we all came to the conclusion that Hiaasen, not quite understanding how to write for kids, dumbed down his writing for a younger audience. We see no subtext in his language, besides in overly sarcastic remarks (mostly about bodily functions). Everything he writes literally means we he is saying (or the complete opposite when it comes to sarcasm), therefore lacking depth and nuance. He leaves nothing for the reader to discover on their own. Moreover, the story is event-driven rather than heart-driven, meaning that it reads more like an action-packed thriller with little emotional substance. 

Stitches, on the other hand, has very few words at all. Having had one of his vocal chords removed as a child, Small chose this medium - the graphic novel - to tell his very silent story. 

I'm not entirely new to this genre. My dad being from Belgium (where comic books are practically a religion!), I "read" a lot of Tintin and Asterix growing up. I remember spending hours with these books, taking in each image and detail. I loved every story and never tired of going through them again and again.

As I flipped through Stitches, I found myself creating an inner dialogue and essentially building the story in my head. It was amazing how invested I became in the story considering how little writing there was. As I read, I wondered: What can images do that words can't? And how can I as a writer evoke authentic emotions and true silence without over-writing?


What Small does beautifully in Stitches, and where Hiaasen fails in Chomp, is in trusting the reader. Our job as writers and artists is to bring to light the human condition in a way that is accessible to our reader or viewer. We draw the dots, but it is up to the reader to make the connections. Therein lies the pleasure of reading, or contemplating any art form. We take it in and make it our own.

My goddess writing teacher has an exercise called the red chair. She tells the class to picture a red chair, any chair. We all visualize this in our minds. Then, she tells us to imagine a red tuffed armchair with gold tassels from the 1970's. As you may have experienced, this chair is much harder for you to envision.

If we do not give our readers the space to make those leaps in their mind, how will they connect to the story? The truth is that you cannot write emotion on the page. A writer's job is to draw the dots that help your reader feel the emotion on their own.

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Shameless plug for the yoga/writing retreat I will be co-leading in Jamaica this Memorial Day!