Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Photo by Ev BishopOnce upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the end of a wooden dock in the purple-not-quite-dark haze of a warm northern summer night with a dear friend. We were discussing places we’d been (or he was) and places we hadn’t (me, everywhere; him, it seemed then, nowhere). I confess I was expressing a bit of jealousy and at one point he looked out over the shimmering dark mass of the tiny isolated lake we visited, and his side profile was a perfect black shadow.

“Nah, you don’t get it,” he said. “Wherever you go, you bring yourself. After about two weeks in any place, you stop being a visitor and they’re just the same as anywhere else, because you’re the same person. So if you enjoy where you are in general, you enjoy the place. If you aren’t happy in general, you aren’t happy in a new place.”

It was a life changing moment, though I didn’t realize it then; it grew on me over the years as the wisdom in his casual words came back to me time and again, applying aptly to so many facets of life.

And just recently, a variation of its truth struck me in how it relates to reading and story. I was commenting on a short exercise one of my friends did called *The Iceburg. In her reply to my comments, it became obviously, embarrassingly clear that I had completely missed her intended “understory” and put my own feelings and sentiments and past onto the character and his motivations/feelings.

I felt kind of stupid, but then I didn’t, because I realized that’s what readers do. They bring themselves to the book. To the short story. To the poem. Despite our best and most skilled writing, despite our subtle pointers and sometimes even didactic scenes meant to reveal something specific, readers will immerse themselves, with their personal histories, their guilts, their persuasions, in your story.

So can you challenge readers whom I’ve basically just said come into your story with preconceptions, prejudices, set ideas, notions, etc? Absolutely. The power and joy of reading—and its value—is that through story, you experience a new or different world and can add others’ experiences to your own, enlarging your thinking and ways of seeing/perceiving the world.

But equally absolutely, you will sometimes be surprised by what conclusions a reader arrives at about your story . . . hopefully not in too negative a way—my friend wasn’t offended—I hadn’t said anything offensive—she was just curious about how I’d gotten what I had from my read . . . and quite simply this was how: her character reminded me of someone I knew and I put all my “stuff” with that person on to her character.

So what does this fact that the reader brings him/herself to the story, thus colouring its reading, mean for us as writers? At least two things: 1) We should write our stories putting as much personal heart, care, and detail as possible. They are ours. 2) We should share our stories, knowing that once we do, they are ours no longer—or, at very least, not in the way they were, because now they are the reader’s. Precious and loved—or hated and scorned—perhaps for reasons we skilfully intended, perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do at all with what was actually in the story we wrote.

For me, it takes a bit of the pressure off—yes, I want to write stories that people love, relate to in some way, “get” . . . But if they don’t, perhaps it’s not me. It’s them. 🙂


* The Iceberg comes from a book of writing exercises that I recommend you buy: The 3 am Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

If you’d like to try the exercise yourself—it’s a great one—here you go: “Write a small story or storylet that works with the idea of an iceberg, whose great mass is mostly below the water and therefore unseeable. Write a scene in which much of the actual story is not told. Let us feel the rest of the story that bobs quietly underwater, but don’t let us see it concretely. 500 words.”

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went, or better yet, let me read your resulting short story.

17 thoughts on “Wherever you go, there you are . . .

  1. This is an excellent way to think of writing, and I’m so glad I’ve read this. Well done, and thank you.

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  2. I totally agree with this! Very well said!

    Also, I found the same thing as your travelling friend after my first long awaited overseas trip. It didn’t stop me from taking more, but in a way, the realization at the time that you take yourself with you, was a surprise. Someone I know just came back from Europe and said the same thing in a different way when I asked him about his trip. He shrugged, then said, “It was okay. Things are just kind of the same everywhere you go.”

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  3. This also explains to me why I can read a story and it does nothing for me – or I can’t even finish it. Then I revisit it some time later and it has become the most wonderful story ever.

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  4. Wherever you go, there you are. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Came across him when I was learning about mindful meditation. Have you read him?

    I too find it amazing that people read my work and see it through their own filters. As you say, the story becomes theirs.

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  5. The reader is oftentimes a character in the book, the angel or the devil the writer cannot control. What an infinity of possibilies such readers open up in the story.

    Malcolm

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  6. Vello, absolutely. That happens to me all the time, too–and the reverse as well. I’ll pick up a book I remember adoring and not even very far in, I’ll think, What, really? I _loved_ this?

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  7. Gah, Jennifer–I knew my title was a quote, but I thought it was one of those anonymous ones. And I haven’t read Jon Kabat-Zinn, but I will now. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

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  8. Dear Malcolm,

    Thanks for stopping by and re: your observation, “The reader is oftentimes a character in the book, the angel or the devil the writer cannot control”—what a fabulous way to put it. Very quote worthy!

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  9. This post is so true and wonderful, Ev. It’s good to remember. The book we write never the book they read. I need to take the pressure off myself this way, particularly while editing! It might add to the loneliness of being a writer but it definitely also adds to the magic.

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  10. I think that phrase was probably around long before Jon Kabat-Zinn entitled one of his books that. Your whole post reminded me of him and his teachings…
    He’s an MD who founded a stress clinic in Boston and I find his readings on meditation interesting. Your post was all about mindfulness 🙂

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  11. Another example of one of the parallels between writing and art.

    (It’s been a while since I’ve been here. You’ve made changes! And, now I am leaving because there are way too many links to tempt me. 😉
    Back in July…road to hell and all that…)

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