Here's to good readers
Once upon a time, when I didn't own a bra but did have my own brass pipe from India and a few cheap Mexican filigree earrings that to me were the essence of glamour, my number one project in life was finding a good man. He would love me with an all-accepting grace that was nothing short of transcendent. He would understand the nuances of everything I said, plus all the things I'd never shared with anyone. In short, he would be perfect. Late at night I would sit at the chrome kitchen table of the house I shared with other melancholy young dreamers, recounting my last romantic misadventure to anyone who would listen. I remember one housemate sighing in sympathy, "Oh, Rona, when will we find love?"
I Found Love at age 20, but it wasn't what I expected. It took me years to learn that if you truly love someone, you must accept the aspects of your partner that you don't like at all, cannot control and will never be able to change. You must understand the difference between the hero of your fantasies and the endearingly flawed human being who has marked his path to the bedroom with a trail of discarded clothing.
Now that I've more or less worked this out, I figure one good man is enough for a lifetime. As a writer, I've embarked on a new search—this time for good readers.
Because My Mother's Daughter is my first book, this discovery surprised me a little. Back when I was deep in the thicket of creation (and possibly lost there), even one reader was be the last thing I wanted. I had a story that demanded to be told, and belief in that story was what pulled me forward. But once I had a book I believed in, I urgently wanted readers. Not just any readers, good readers. Women of heart and mind, to borrow from Joni Mitchell. Since my story focused on the mother/daughter bond, I didn't foresee that some of my most appreciative readers would be men.
I pictured the Good Reader with the same shining idealism I once brought to my image of the Good Man. The Good Reader would not only love my book (and by extension, me); she would understand eveything I wrote, or hinted at, precisely as I intended. I've had the good fortune to connect with some wonderful readers whose response touches and delights me. But there's something about Good Readers that I didn't fully grasp until now. Neither I nor any other writer can control what they make of a book. They have views, peccadilloes and complicated personal histories, all of which they bring to every book they read.
My mother stands at the centre of my book—my fierce, angry, captivating, domineering yet ultimately loveable mother. I've told stories about her that made me flinch in the writing. Yet I still believed that readers would find her a basically sympathetic figure—and that if they didn't, I would have failed as a writer. There are readers who see her exactly as I hoped they would. Some have told me they wept over her death. Yet other readers see my mother as pathologically controlling and deeply untrustworthy. The readers who find her appalling are no less attentive or seasoned than those who wish they could have known her.
As a memoirist, I knew that I would be judged along with my book. Still, I found myself bemused at first by the sharply conflicting judgments. There are readers who think I'm corrosively angry and cannot forgive. Other readers seem to want more righteous indignation from me. In their eyes, I've idealized my mother and am making excuses for her. As my Russian Jewish grandmother would say, zoll zeyn. So be it. There are two Rona Maynards now—the flesh-and-blood one who likes her breakfast toast with goat cheese and marmalade, and the character I've portrayed in My Mother's Daughter.
For what it's worth, I have a degree in the art of reading. I studied English in an old-school program where we dismantled every text line by line, like a formidably complicated puzzle. I came to the conclusion that there's one right way to read every work. My desire to be right served me well: I aced every course. Only by reading for love, not marks, did I learn that the best books derive their power from multiple meanings. They're like the Biblical house with many mansions.
Good readers intuitively know this, whatever they studied in school. They don't want to be right; they just want to be engaged. They don't expect to love everything about a book as long as it gives them an experience to remember—and better yet, talk about with friends. I've been talking about Cormac McCarthy's harrowing post-apocalytic novel The Road ever since I finished reading it two months ago, even though I'm not entirely convinced by the ending. But so what? The Road makes me want to read it again, and that is what matters. Before I ever set out to be a writer, I was a reader. I like to be a good one. Or at least the best reader I can be.
Posted by Rona December 20, 2007 @ 1:52 AM. File in The writing life