A few years ago, U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin spoke at the Maui Writers’ Conference. Before reading from some of his work, he expressed an opinion of poetry (and by extension, written works generally) that resonated with me – and I think with many others in the room.
“Don’t read bad poetry,” he told us, “and by bad poetry, I mean poetry you don’t like. Don’t read poetry because someone told you it was good, find some that you like and read that. If you like it, it’s good.”
Books work the same way.
It’s easy to get caught up in a discussion of literary merits and style, but the reality is that when you write, you write because you want someone to read it. You write to silence the Voices In Your Head (ok, maybe that’s just me), and possibly to make a point, too, but at the end of the day if no one enjoys it your work falls flat.
As storytellers, we owe a lot to the bardic traditions from which our profession grew. Male, female, old and young, good bards had one thing in common: they could hold an audience’s attention. When they spoke, people listened – not because someone told them the bard was good, but because the words captured their attention and held it until the end. (Not to say there weren’t bad bards too, but let’s face it, Vikings weren’t known for their sensitivity to feelings. If you made it in their world, you could sing.)
Without taking anything away from the pursuit of high concept or art-for-art’s-sake, part of finding your voice is figuring out what it is you were sent to say. For my part, that’s telling a story that people want to read, filled with characters they like spending time with and action that grabs hold and takes them along for the ride. If I produce any literary merit along the way, well, that’s a bonus.