Tell Me a Story (Part 2)

When I think about it, writing a book is a lot like being like Coleridge‘s Ancient Mariner. The reader is the wedding guest, a guy who’s got his mind on much more fun things than to listen to your story, and who’s very resistant when you collar him and demand that he pay attention.

Your task as a writer, your curse if you will, is to grab the reader and hold him or her, if not literally, then with an arresting opening (“There was a ship”) and then not let go. As the poem attests, you can take the reader far afield from their usual experiences, but you’ve also got to go deep into the story and character. You’ve got to make them care about your protagonists and feel the protagonists’ struggle is theirs. The protagonist or the message may be complicated or unsympathetic. It may be literally incredible or fanciful. You can kill the lead character, you can weigh the protagonist down with guilt and horror, you can speak of the unspeakable and break any amount of rules and leave the reader feeling storm-tossed or becalmed. But you cannot betray their trust in the story-telling: you keep looking them in the eye and say, “Bear with me. The journey is not over yet. We will eventually get home.”

The result, if you do it right? Your reader will be a “sadder and a wiser” individual. That’s not to say your work has to be sad or wise; it doesn’t have to be as phantasmagoric or allegorical as the Rime. But the reader has got to feel the weight and satisfaction of a story coming to an end, that sense of having been taken some place else, the border-crossing between the land of your imagination and the mundane world in sight. And you have to do it each time, with every wedding guest. That is your obligation as the writer: to “travel the world” for the rest of your life trying to get people’s attention, grabbing one in three, or one in three hundred, and attempting to stop them from entering their much more attractive entertainments to hear your own. There was a ship.

About martinrowe

I am the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation, the co-founder of Lantern Publishing & Media, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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