Writing for twenty-seven readers

Every once in a while I come across a piece of writing advice that really resonates with me. And when I reviewed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed last week, I forgot to mention that she had one of these bits in her book.

In Gilbert’s prologue, she writes about her difficulties writing Committed, how she ditched her first attempt at a manuscript and started from scratch. She writes:

Ultimately I discovered that the only way I could write again at all was to vastly limit — at least in my own imagination — the number of people I was writing for. So I started completely over. And I did not write this version of Committed for millions of readers. Instead, I wrote it for exactly twenty-seven readers.

She goes on to name those twenty-seven readers, all female friends, relatives and neighbors. As I was reading those names, I realized that I use this technique, too — subconsciously. And I should start using it consciously.

Who do I write for? Not twenty-seven people. Sometimes I pretend I’m writing my book for just one person: a close friend named AJ. (Now that I’m writing this post, I recall Stephen King mentioning something similar in On Writing, how he writes his books with one person in mind, his wife.)

Why AJ? She knows how to tell a good story (like me, she has journalism in her blood). She’s got an attention span that does my writing good — I can imagine her getting super excited about the riveting parts of my book, but yawning and skimming over more boring sections (when I picture her getting bored, I cut). But the main reason I write for AJ is because I know she’ll never laugh at me. She wants to read about my feelings, secrets and embarrassing moments, and she’ll like the book more because of those details. Even when it’s hard for me to reveal personal thoughts to the millions of people who will read my book (hey, you never know), I feel comfortable sharing them with AJ. And so I write for her.

This strategy could work for any genre, but it’s particularly useful for memoir because it helps the writer be honest — utterly honest. The world isn’t going to read the book. Just your friends. No biggie. No pressure. Just be honest. And writing with an honest voice is so important in memoir.

Who do you write for?

Despite Committed, I’m still rooting for Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t usually review books on this blog. Hell, I don’t even know how to write a book review. But because Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed was the much-awaited sequel to what’s arguably the most popular book in my genre, Eat, Pray, Love, I’m going to tell you what I thought of it.

When I say much-awaited, I don’t just mean by the public at large. I mean by me. I was so eager to read this book that I bought it in hardcover at the bookstore instead of waiting my turn at the library. (Hey, when you’re unemployed, some things gotta go.)

Why? Because I was rooting for Elizabeth Gilbert. I feel like I know her. I don’t really. But the fact that I feel like I do is a tribute to her writing style, the details she revealed in her first book and interviews she’s done since then. In Eat, Pray, Love — which was published in more than 20 languages — she came across as a real person, a human with hopes and flaws (even though the fairy-tale ending irked me). I saw her as one of us, an underdog, a virtually unknown writer who hit it big. And I felt like we had stuff in common besides writing: a love for travel, a lack of trust in marriage as an institution and a belief in speaking up for what we believe in.

But as much as I wanted to, I did not like her latest book.

It wasn’t the writing — Gilbert’s writing is conversational, easy to follow and witty. I love her use of italics. It makes me feel like I’m right beside her as she’s recounting the story. That’s something I’d like to incorporate into my own writing. (And this is coming from someone who used to be against italics altogether.)

What I didn’t appreciate was the way she tried to mix a history of marriage and her thoughts on the subject with her own love story.

I cared about the love story, what happened to her and Felipe after Eat, Pray, Love. And while I could’ve done with a little bit of background on marriage and a few of her opinions woven in, I felt like the book was weighed down with research and rambling. Her findings and reflections were the core of the book instead of the story of her second marriage. And maybe that’s how she wanted it — but I wished it were the other way around.

In fact, I so wanted to read about her and Felipe that I found myself skipping over parts of the book that dealt with her marriage research. It bored me.

It’s ironic, in a way, that I should read this book now, while I’m revising my own manuscript. One of the criticisms I’ve heard from my guinea pig readers is that my story needs more of my own reflection — more analyzing rather than just reporting, as we’d say in the news biz. Reading Gilbert’s book made me realize just how much contemplation can be included in a memoir. I think she overdid it. But I need to do it more.

The book certainly had its strong points. I loved the tale of her grandmother, who had a cleft palate and was expected never to marry. (She did.) I loved that Gilbert delved into why she doesn’t want children. She could have avoided that topic if she wanted to, but baring her soul is what this author is good at. And now that I’m writing a memoir that also includes some soul-baring, I know how hard that can be.

Here’s what I found myself wondering after I finished the book: Gilbert admitted she wrote it once, wasn’t satisfied and started over. What didn’t she didn’t like about the first manuscript? She says her voice wasn’t quite right, but I want to know more. What was that version like?

Hopefully she’ll reveal that in an interview somewhere — maybe on this blog? Elizabeth, if you’re reading this, come visit. Because even though I didn’t care for Committed, I respect you as a writer and a person — enough to buy your next book.

Anybody else read Committed? What’d you think?