Lately I’ve found myself paying a lot more attention to words. Of course that started in earnest when I returned to creative writing in a serious way. But I don’t mean just the words I or someone else uses to bring a scene or character to life, or even to give rise to their inner life or my own, for that matter. No, in truth the fascination lately has come with the connections between words and the way one word brings another to mind if it looks or sounds, in part or in whole, like others, though the meanings might be ironically opposed. It’s the way I found the title for my second novel, Certain Liberties, appreciating at the outset the juxtaposition between ‘certain’ meaning absolute and complete, but also meaning specific and separate. One can do the same juggling act with ‘liberties’, and I’ve enjoyed playing the game with the working titles of some of my friends’ books, too, as well as my subsequent novels. It’s the association between words that implies such interesting things, expanding and embellishing the original intent.
I have wondered how often associations play a major part in the way a reader perceives a book. Suspecting they’re very important, I often force myself to study the level of understanding I think is likely to be there for ‘most’ readers. Is this a universal association, or something so unusual very few will be able to make it? How well do I have to know my readers to make certain suggestions? Do I need to know their tastes, life experiences, and the way their inner voices sound; or shouldn’t I care? Is it impossible to worry about the audience and write the book at the same time? I know to a great extent that’s so, and yet I do feel if there’s a very unusual and personal connection to be made, I’ll certainly need to build up a high level of trust in order to entice them to take a leap of faith with me.
Some writers can earn that trust from the opening lines of their work, but very few. Usually it takes the commitment to follow an author through time, space and context before the reader feels comfortable receiving a thought they’ve never had before, a connection they’ve never made, and being willing to relax with a sigh of contentment and an ‘if you say so…’ hanging in the ether around their heads. I’ve had this experience myself with certain writers (see, there’s ‘certain’ again!) but not with others. Naturally there are those on the end of the spectrum that produce an angry, ‘no way!’ from me, and the profound pledge never to read their work again. That unhappy experience becomes my unfortunate association with that writer’s work. Which brings to mind the difficulty of accepting someone else’s recommendation for reading material.
Once, I had a lot more time to read and didn’t care nearly as much about it as I do now. Then I would grab anyone’s suggestion for a new book and had the mixed success rate you might expect from that casual connection. Now that I have to choose my material carefully, because what I really want is to read everything, I find I’m much touchier about an unhappy reading experience. Accepting someone’s suggestion for a book I might enjoy is like agreeing to a blind date, and as I said earlier, often just as disastrous. At least I think that’s true for a writer.
Perhaps it’s because there’s absolutely nothing casual about the association. And the time taken away from other reading, in addition to the high expectation level, makes success almost impossible. The bar is just too high. Yet I’ve recently finished a classic by way of my writing partner and found myself in the most idyllic association imaginable. My friend often spices up his reading with an occasional return to the masterworks he missed, has forgotten or didn’t understand the first time around. Who among us can say those associations aren’t true for us, too? I always applaud his commitment and swear I’m going to do the same, but seldom, if ever, do. After reading House of Mirth himself, he made a stronger case than usual for my getting to know Edith Wharton better, and I’m so glad he did and that I made the leap. I suppose when one discerns the inner workings of the other’s head, the chance for a happy relationship is much better.
The happy association with Edith Wharton has already produced a friendship (one way, unfortunately) of singular importance to me. There are so many admirable and skillful twists to The Age of Innocence, I could hardly bear to finish it. So now I’ve launched myself into her memoir, A Backward Glance, to see if I can detect how she accomplishes her feats of magic, and also admittedly to get closer to her. Only a few chapters in, I’m amazed by the easy, sure but modest voice I hear. No apologies, guilt, incriminations or blame can be detected anywhere. Knowing a little of her history, it’s hard to believe how healthy her psyche is. It may not be smoke and mirrors but it is a unique individual and an enthralling experience, this association with Edith Wharton through another writer.
It was a hell of an introduction and an amazing success story for a first date. Now I’m eager to take the leap of faith to follow my new friend Edith anywhere. Well, not exactly my friend, as she isn’t with us anymore. But I have to say she’s my friend by association with another. Sometimes, it works better that way.