Fancy Nancy and the creative partnership between writers and readers
My daughter loves reading Fancy Nancy stories . . .
To tell the truth, I love Fancy Nancy stories, too. The illustrations. The whimsy. And of course, the posh (that’s a fancy way of saying fancy) words.
In tonight’s story, Nancy was giving away FREE ballerina lessons. Her dad just couldn’t hit the mark when he tried going en pointe (pronounced: ahn pwant). Which — as a dad who can’t even see his toes when standing up straight, much less dance on them — I get.
So Nancy, like any good daughter, took it upon herself to help guide him towards excellence. If you didn’t know, Nancy’s jete is flawless.
And I can’t forget the look on my daughter’s face when I asked her, “Wouldn’t you love to have a ballet lesson with Nancy?” You’d have thought I’d asked her if she’d like a shot of vinegar in her eye.
“No” she said — as though it was soooooooooooo asinine for me to even ask. Yeah, did I mention, she’s three?
My brain paused for a moment at this point. As a parent, I’ve learned God gives you the supernatural ability to feel a vibe when dealing with your kids to help you decide if you should go there. Or ignore. Tonight, I decided exploring what was going on inside the shaping mind behind her stink eye was worth it. So I asked . . .
“What? Why not? I thought you’d love a ballet lesson from Nancy.”
Her response was brilliant. She said —
“Because, daddy, I’m not in the story.” Her tone was filled with so much exasperation, I nearly choked on it. I could hear her thinking to herself, Geez dad, it’s so obvious.
And immediately I came face-to-face with two thoughts, at almost exactly the same time —
- Dear God, please help. She’s going to be a teenager some day.
- What a powerful and insightful bit of feedback. I want to hear more . . .
After some banter and finally convincing her I wasn’t going to let it go (sorry parents, I worked that in during editing, just for you), she finally said, “This isn’t a story about me.”
Now, hear me here — my daughter loves these stories. And her collection is only growing. In fact, the times she chooses a story other than Fancy Nancy is the exception to the rule.
But when I hear something like “this isn’t a story about me,” even from the mouth of a three-year-old, the writer in me pays attention. Because that’s my job every single day. To create a connected experience and creative partnership with a reader — where they see themselves as part of the story. Whether it’s through their values, context, aspirations, fears, needs.
The power and difficulty of writing a good story
As a writer, my role is about guiding — building the framework for a meaningful experience for a reader to entertain, promote change, or even solve their problems. But at the same time, writing isn’t spoon feeding information and insulting a reader’s intelligence by refusing to grant them space and freedom to connect the dots for themselves.
That’s the power, and difficulty, of writing a good story.
I love TV and movies as much as the next guy. Well, as much as the next guy who really loves watching TV and movies. But I always find myself saying screen adaptations are nowhere near as good as the book.
Many times, in the past, I’d make this comment just to save face. How many times do we openly admit to being TV or movie junkies? There’s something so un-hip about sitting in front of the tube and playing with our gums while the Underwoods seemingly take over the world.
But if you think about it for a moment, TV and movies show us everything we need to know about a story. Everything is handed over to us. In terms of our senses, we are left with little responsibility of filling in the gaps about setting, context, characterization — what a character looks like, their facial expressions, and the layout of a scene or setting. It’s all packaged up and given to us in high-definition.
However, a book or an article that’s well-written . . .
The creative partnership between writers and readers
When we read a dynamite story, there’s an underlying partnership between the writer and the reader. Essentially it’s this:
The writer plots the storyline with just enough detail to trigger the imagination of the reader to fill in the details.
That’s why reading can give our brains such a freaky buzz — and we turn page after page after page to maintain the rush. We can’t help ourselves.
It’s also why reading isn’t a good activity when you want to go to sleep — because your brain is actively involved in the creative process. Unless, of course, the writing sucks. Then it’s . . . Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Because a great writer understands I have certain values. She also understands I exist within certain specified levels of a hierarchy of need (that’s Maslow, not Pavlov — don’t start drooling). So she gives me just enough to help me move through the storyline — placing dots in strategic areas of the plot. While depending on me to read into her words my own hopes, dreams, fears, needs, and context. And connecting the dots for myself.
And, obviously, I’m in the very center of my own imagination — let’s be real, this is human nature 101 — because it’s all about me.
Voila! There I am! I’m in the story. Actively co-creating with the writer.
That’s why even the most absurd piece of fiction can have the most profound effect. It’s not just about what the writer writes. It’s what the reader reads, understands, grasps, applies.
A reader’s primary filter for understanding
When I was in graduate school, I took a course on the intersection point between modern, post-modern, post-post-modern, and meta-modern literary theory and biblical hermeneutics. Over the course of the semester, we analyzed different frameworks in which people read and understand the Scriptures.
By in large, the most prevalent interpretive lens is reader response.
Here’s what that means (in an extremely thin nutshell): people, when they read the Bible, are less concerned about what the original author meant than they are about what a series of verses means to them. Right now. Today. In their own context.
Surely, at some point (like at a Bible study), you’ve heard: “This is what this verse means to me . . .”
Here’s what’s really happening, they’re downloading all of their experiences, their context, their pain, their joy, their failures, their successes — and finding their connection point, their entry way into the broader Biblical narrative. They’re trying to make sense of the ancient nature of the text in the best way they can — and through the only familiar means they have . . .
Is it any wonder we can all read the same verse, and walk away with radically different perspectives as to its meaning? We’re reading the Scriptures. But in a very real, honest way (and maybe not so honest at times), we invite the Scriptures to read us. To place us in the story. Or rather, to place the ancient story into our story. Unveiling who we are, our purpose, our meaning — from the inside out.
The writer builds a structure, but the reader adds their own touches of flare — in creative partnership — to make a verse, a story, even an article their own.
Reading as a creative process
About 10 years ago, I was reading the most ridiculous series of novels by Jasper Fforde. The series follows a badass literary detective, Thursday Next, in an alternate version of Swindon (southwest England for my geographically impaired friends) in the year 1985. It’s a world where do-dos are not only alive and well, but they’re also in high demand as household pets.
But more than investigating fraudulent copies of Byron, Thursday Next has the ability to read herself into literary works of fiction. It’s totally absurd. Like, she’s inside the very pages of a novel. And her main responsibility is policing rogue characters who tried to rewrite their characters in famous literature — for their own vile purposes. And after book jumping through a variety of fictional scenes of Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and a near death experience in the Raven — Thursday came to realize the power of reading. And in one of her reflections, she wrote:
“Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work — the writer might have died a long time ago.”
Ok. Thursday is being somewhat hyperbolic. It’s supposed to be funny — so if you’re a writer, don’t start throwing rotten fruit at me. But pause for a moment and really think about it. And really think about the reader.
Building worlds and ideas in creative partnership
The symbiotic relationship of writers and readers is based on a mutual desire to create. It’s a creative partnership in a highly fluid process we share.
Writers create worlds. And readers explore these worlds for areas where they can escape and hide from the daily grind — making them their own.
But, as a writer, how do you write in such a way that the reader sees themselves as part of the story?
How do we create such powerful worlds, scenes, and stories where readers feel they have just as much at stake in the outcome as the writer?
What kind of writing will help give my three-year-old permission to both lose herself and find herself in the story — where she feels like her role is just as important as the characters she encounters in the pages of her books?
I don’t have it all figured out. But I have a three starting ideas:
3 ideas to help you draw readers into your writing
1) Be a customer service representative:
When you write, think of your reader as a customer. Maybe they have a complaint. Maybe they’re mad as hell because they’ve been on hold for hours and all they need is your mailing address — and your website is so crappy they can’t find it. Whatever it may be, dig into their needs and desires and write towards their perceptions. Whether to affirm them, hone them, or maybe to help change them. Be unexpected, helpful (hello Comcast?), and write in such a way as to help add value to their lives. Because, at the end of the day, the reader, much like the customer, is in charge and has the power to toss you aside for someone else. Or, as Walt Disney said: “Do what you do so well, they will want to see it again, and bring their friends.”
2) Be a partner:
Think of your writing as a dialog, collaboration, or creative partnership. In my mind, the act of both writing and reading are different sides of the same coin of the creative process. And readers will have far more respect for you when you talk with them instead of at them. When you sit down to write, develop your beginning and ending first. Then strategically set some signposts along the way. But then instead of giving every single detail — give the reader some freedom to explore for themselves. Let them connect the dots and see themselves as an active participant in the journey. People will take far more value from an experience they can personalize for themselves than having a spoon crammed into their mouth with every sentence.
Any of you have experience with a toddler? When my daughter started eating real food instead of the baby goop, we ALL had a much better experience when I relinquished control of the spoon and allowed her the freedom to touch her broccoli, play with it, and eventually get it into her mouth. It was a little messy, but the mess was worth it. Which leads me to . . .
3) And above all, chillax:
When you commit to a reader first approach — as a customer service representative in creative partnership in the overall experience — YOU ARE GOING TO BE MISUNDERSTOOD. People will take what you write completely out of context. Your intention for writing will be for one thing, but someone will apply it in the most ass-backwards way possible. It’s going to happen. But here’s a bit of reality: that’s probably going to happen anyway. Because objectivity is completely against our nature. We see what we see — for better or worse.
It’s like the car wreck analogy. Two vehicles collide at a busy intersection in front of you. The responding police officer on the scene asks you and a few other motorists to stay behind to give a statement of the events leading up to the incident. And each of you will have your own subjective perspective of the collision — because each of you watched from a different vantage point.
You just have to accept people who read your work will do so with their own sense of subjectivity. In most ways, different perspectives help provide a fuller picture. And that’s a thing of beauty. But don’t get bent out of shape when a different perspective seems to completely misunderstand your point. Just chillax and join the conversation.
These are just a few ideas. Maybe you have some of your own. Share ‘em in the comments.