The Last Word


I received an email recently from a reader who had found my essay about writing and courage and wanted to let me know that firemen and soldiers and police officers were courageous, but writers were not. It’s rare I get these kinds of emails, and I sat for a while debating what to do. I wanted to write him right back, of course. He’d missed the point of the article entirely. Perhaps he’d appreciate some clarification.

Except by clarification I really only explaining why his concept of courage was so limited and screwy. The truth was, I wasn’t really interested in clarifying at all, I just didn’t like him having the last word on this. No – I didn’t like knowing he’d had the last word on it. Whether I hear from them or not, in the conversation that is a story or an essay, readers always get the last word. Writers start stories, and readers finish them.

Which is why “finished” stories can seem so unfinished to the beginning writer who’s not yet had enough experience sharing their work. I was watching a documentary on the Rolling Stones the other night in which the old rockers were rehearsing Sympathy for the Devil in preparation for an upcoming tour. Once they’d hit the last the chord, Mick Jagger observed, “All that’s missing now is an audience.” If you’ve ever performed, you know how true this is. Not only does the audience give you energy, but something you began is completed in their laughter and excitement and applause.

The same is true for writers, except we don’t get to be there when the final word is read and the reader finds in themselves what you had found in the story. Or maybe the reader doesn’t find anything. What’s odd about that email, I realize, is that in sending it he’d actually returned the last word to me, for our roles of author and reader were now reversed. Reading his email, I remembered why courage is about more than the fear of death and harm, and why all sharing is an act of love, even grumpy emails for dissatisfied readers.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.