This month’s column was inspired by an email exchange between myself and fellow WUer Deb Lacativa, who has recently discovered my work and, it humbly pleases me to say, has become a fan. It’s the reason she’s become a fan that I’d like to focus on here. In a nutshell it’s because we’re so much alike. We’re nearly the same age and shared a ton of common experiences “back in the day” (back, that is, before they had the phrase “back in the day.”) We both understand that we came of age in the golden era between the advent of the Pill and the onset of AIDS; we know what a difference that made.
Here was Deb’s provocative question when she’d finished reading my novel of the 1960s, Lucy in the Sky:
“How does this fucking Zeitgeist thing actually work? Are our experiences so awfully common? How could we both have characters named Jude and Ray? I know! “Hey Jude” and “You can call me Ray,” that’s how. Shit just gets into the gray matter grooves. How did my mother’s friggin’ Chevelle come into play [in your story]? The list goes on, but you’d be bored unless you’d heard me squeal like a stricken goat each time I came across another parity. Were all our experiences that one year so compressed, focused? Did we all get the acid, one way or another? I’m beginning to believe it’s true.”
Deb, I’m beginning to believe it, too. We drank (smoked, snorted, swallowed) from the well of common experience, and as a consequence, our innocent little 1950s-born selves were torn down and rebuilt from scratch in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When people come from the same place and the same time, they shouldn’t be surprised to find that they think the same way.
What I am surprised about is how I have for so long overlooked this obvious reality, and its impact on my reach as an author.
Yes, yes, I know that I describe my books as “for young seekers and old geezers,” but that flip positioning ignores the underlying truth: My books are for me – for people exactly like me! If I could just get word out to every aging hippie and/or proto-punk that “here’s the story of your life,” I could sell as many books as, well, as there are aging hippies and/or proto-punks.
[pullquote]When people come from the same place and the same time, they shouldn’t be surprised to find that they think the same way. What I am surprised about is how I have for so long overlooked this obvious reality, and its impact on my reach as an author. [/pullquote]
But that’s not the half of it. That’s just the sales part, the part that wants to see tens of monthly dollars turn into hundreds of monthly dollars in my several online revenue streams. What’s really important is, yikes, did I ever reach this reader! When Deb wrote, “I had to keep staying my hand from picking up the laptop like an aboriginal to see where and how you had gotten in,” what few hairs I have stood on end. That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish as an author. What I’ve always wanted to accomplish. And I didn’t even know it!
When people have asked me what writing is all about, I’ve often put it in terms of code. As writers, we encode our thoughts into words, then transmit those words to readers, who decode the words back into thought. If we do our jobs well, then what we think gets encoded and decoded without too much signal loss and the reader gets our point. This, I now see, is a thin explanation. What it’s really about is getting jacked in, brain to brain, so that the question of encoding and decoding goes away, and all that’s left is connection – pure, unadulterated communion that transcends time, space, page, screen, everything. Wow. That’s what gets me high. That’s what got me high when Deb wrote what she wrote. For this one reader, this one time, I fulfilled my highest purpose as a writer: I met minds. It’s happened before; I flatter myself that it will happen again. But I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it happening with such clarity and such… gratitude. For all the copies of The California Roll that sit in a warehouse somewhere (or my garage) gathering dust; for all the wisdom in Killer Poker that has been rendered obsolete by the evolution of that game; for all the unpurchased iterations of A Million Random Words (what the hell was I thinking with that one?) there’s this one pure, perfect moment of absolute harmonic resonance. Today I know in my bones that at last as a writer I’ve, well, made my bones.
What does this tell all of us about all of us? That communion is what we should seek. We’re not here to inform, instruct, entertain, any of that. We’re here to touch. And when we touch, we feel it like an electric shock from the top of our heads to the soles of our feet. At least if we let ourselves – if we allow ourselves the moment of openness and vulnerability and, yes, gratitude, that looks past all the bullshit about sales and marketing and audience. Our audience isn’t readers, it’s reader. A reader. Just one. That’s all it takes to feel fulfilled.
Oh, I have to toss in one last quote from Deb, just because it popped the balloon of my ego before it got too big: “Speaking of girls, I appreciated that you didn’t pretend to know what was really going on in their heads.”
Well, speaking as a boy, who does?
So what was your magic moment? When did you know in your heart of hearts that the blood, sweat and tears you pour into your work was worth it because the evidence stood before your eyes that a reader had been reached? If that experience yet lies ahead for you, let me tell you, it’s better than all the drugs that Deb, or I, or any of my characters ever took.