Private moments, public thanks

Imagine you’re a carpenter.

You go to someone’s house; you build some shelves for them; you get paid, and go on to the next job. It’s counter-intuitive, but chances are you get much more directly emotional rewarded than a writer would for writing a book.

You’ve seen your shelves in the house, and made sure that they fit in well; you’ve had the gratitude of the home owners; you’ve felt their pleasure, and can remember that pleasure, and can imagine them using their new shelves and feel satisfaction at a well-done job.

Now, imagine you’re a novelist, or perhaps a poet. You’ve spent weeks, months, years sitting in your back room, on your own, writing. Your book’s been launched; you’ve had a nice little launch party, a few (hopefully) good reviews, and maybe some fan mail or a little more traffic on your blog – and, that’s it.

As a writer, you can move someone profoundly, and never know it. People can be obsessed by your book, staying up all night to finish it, raving about it to your friends, and you’ll never find out.

Writers don’t directly experience the way people engage with their work; they’re always at one remove from it. Writing is not a performance art. And because of that, writers don’t necessarily get the direct emotional rewards that a carpenter would.

And, in the arts, that lack of reward is pretty unique. Musicians, actors, composers, painters, sculptors, film makers – all of them, in one way or another, can engage directly with an audience as it engages with their work.

But books are made to be read over a period of days or weeks, in whatever private moments can be grabbed from a busy life – so the collaboration between writer and reader always happens in the writer’s absence, without their knowledge or direct engagement.

A yoga friend once framed this problem in terms of Prana. She saw Prana as the emotional and intellectual energy that drives us all. Writers pour huge amounts of it into their work; but their audience is too distanced from them to give much back, and that creates an imbalance. As readers, we consume an awful lot of Prana – but we don’t always return it to its source.

So what’s to be done? Perhaps as readers we need to change how we see ourselves. Just as we engage actively with books, we should be engaging actively with the people who create them. We need to remember that after a great performance, an audience always applauds; we should be applauding too, directly and personally, to let writers know what their work has done for us.

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