The Reader-Writer Covenant


What is the relationship between reader and writer? I’ve been a reader for far more hours of my life than I’ve been a writer. As a child, I made twice-weekly trips to the Kensington branch of the Brooklyn library nearest my home (my haul each time limited by the rules for children’s cards.) Writers were gods to me, purveyors of that which I needed for sustenance. Food. Shelter. Books. Those were my life’s priorities.

Naturally, I liked some books more than others. Some of the books I read as a child etched themselves on my soul (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). I felt as if these books reached inside me and wrenched out truth.

As an adult reader I still feel that way; I’m constantly foraging for books that offer glimpses into a character’s psyche, that go deep enough to make me part of the choir, saying, “Oh yeah, me too, tell it, writer. True that, uh huh.”

Now that I am a writer, I’ve learned that reaching so deep isn’t always comfortable. Hey, my daughter’s gonna read this! Hey, husband: this isn’t you!It’s far easier to skate on the surface. And, honestly, there is a place on my shelf for those soothing books. Sometimes I want a comfort read, a total escape, a warm place to rest.

I believe there should be a covenant between writer and reader – an offering made by a writer to the reader. What it is that you, the writer, are offering to you, the reader? (Because I can’t imagine a writer who is not also a reader.) Are you making a covenant with the reader? Are you offering the reader the same qualities that you want when you’re the reader? Are you offering them your very best?

Sometimes I worry, that in the rush of wanting to publish, I could forget the importance of writing (in the inestimable words of Natalie Goldberg) down the bones.

My favorite books, the ones I return to time and again, are those ones gritty enough to have emotional truth (which is very different than the truth of events.)  Thus, I try to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible. Another reader/writer might prefer a thriller that sets their heart pounding–but every genre owns it’s own truth and depth. I suspect that the best writers in each  genre are readers of the same.

Books are precious to me. Right now I am turning the pages of Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in every spare moment. I schlepped the thing on Amtrak from Boston to Albany to Rhinebeck. I could have taken a lighter book, or simply read something on my electronic device. This is a controversial book – many have denounced it as no more than gossip. But whatever it is, it satisfies my hungry reader. I was so desperate to read this book that I was unwilling to leave it behind for 4 days. (I think Halperin and Heilemann put themselves on the good edge of their genre covering political intrigue in a presidential campaign.)

That’s exactly what this reader wants: writers who have dug deep, whatever their genre, and given me those best hours of my day. They kept their covenant with me.

(first published in 2011)

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  1. Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    You have definitely kept yours with this reader. The Murder’s Daughters will always be one of my favorites!!

  2. Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    When there’s a line or two (or more) in a book that I highlight or write down or book mark, I feel like the author has said something in a way I couldn’t – or more often – wish I had. It’s something that grabs me, speaks to me, and I don’t want to forget it. My goal as an author is one day have someone underline a passage in my book — and I do feel a responsibility to offer the best to the reader, hopefully making this possible.

  3. Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I agree with you wholeheartedly! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books too. I loved Francis from the get go…what an awesome character!
    For me, it is very important for the characters to drive the story and not vice versa. When plot drives the story, characters are destroyed…and unfortunately, I have seen that happening often enough.

  4. Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I love the metaphor of a covenant with the reader – beautifully put.

    And now I gotta go and get me a copy of Game Change…

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