A Long Conversation

Let us say you are at a small party. You and five or six friends sit around a dinner table and pass an hour in conversation. One person tells a story that reminds another of a story that leads to a debate about taxes that leads to another story that leads to general speculation about the afterlife. You are a storyteller. You are also thoughtful. You have an opinion about taxes and strong feelings about the afterlife. You enjoy telling stories and the experience of putting thoughts into words. How tempting, then, to tell a story simply to have your turn, because you feel like being on the stage for a time. How tempting to add your opinion so that you can work that language muscle you so enjoy working.

I have told stories from this place many times; I have added my opinion to the public opinion soup in just the same fashion. There is nothing wrong with this. I can tell a good story, and my opinion matters as much as anyone else’s. Yet I have had to admit that there is a difference between telling a story just because I feel like telling a story and telling a story because the moment seems to ask for that story, or offering an opinion because the moment seems to ask for that opinion. One feels like a pleasant exercise, the other a valuable contribution.

I have read many books that feel like a pleasant exercise for the author. There is nothing wrong with this. If you enjoy writing books, you probably do it well. But when I hear authors complaining about sales and building a wider readership, I find myself thinking about those stories I have told so that I could experience telling a story. Such stories end with the telling. The stories that felt asked for seem to live on a little longer, perhaps long enough for someone else to tell it.

I believe this is the very best way to build a readership. It’s not very practical, I understand, and it may mean sitting quietly for a longer time than we are used to sitting quietly. But readership grows by word of mouth, and the longer a story stays with your reader, the more likely she will tell a friend about it. The whole of human society is just one enormous, ongoing dinner conversation, after all. Let your stories point that conversation where it is truly asking to go.

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