Pass It On

Years ago I was talking to an actor friend who had recently begun to conceive of a new kind of theater that he hoped would do away with traditional theater once and for all. He considered traditional theater, where the audience sits quietly and watches and listens to actors, offensive and outdated. “The problem with it,” he explained, leaning over the table toward me, “is the performers are always f***ing the audience.” He then mimed this experience for me with his enormous hands. “You see?” he said. “We’re always f***ing the audience.”

I said I understood because he was much older and much drunker than I, and because I wanted him to stop doing that thing with his hands immediately, but I did not really understand. I was perfectly happy with traditional theater, and in fact made a point to avoid any performance that might ask me to speak or get up out of my chair. And anyhow, my friend was having trouble that night explaining exactly what this new kind of theater would be, so he kept drinking and getting grumpier and more prophetic about the death of art and theater and so on.

It was one of those discussions where I knew my friend was both right and wrong, and I have spent the years after it ruminating off and on about what I should have said that night. My friend assumed that audiences were passive victims of the artist’s will, and I suppose to a fly on the wall it would perhaps appear so.

But then I remembered that old, old writer’s adage: Show Don’t Tell. Why is it better to show and not tell? Why can’t I just tell the audience what the character feels? Why can’t I just tell you Henry is angry instead of having him slam the door and kick a chair? Because, it turns out, no one is really passive. Everyone, whether they understand it or not, makes up his or her own mind about everything. In fact, even if, sheep-like, you follow your husband or wife’s every command, you still must decide to follow your husband or wife’s every command. And so not only are we the authors of our own life, we are also, to some degree, the authors of the very books we read.

The job of the writer, or of any artist, is always to create fertile open space in which an audience’s imagination can flourish. No matter what the author tells us, we the readers will decide, ultimately, what a character looks and sounds like, what is meant by happiness and despair, what it feels like to be alone or in love. The words and images and scenes are merely sparks for our unique feeling memory, and in this way we tell the story to ourselves, and why in the end no two readers ever read exactly the same novel.

It can be a bit infuriating as a writer to think of this—we know what we meant, after all, and we spent a lot of time figuring out how to say it so there would be no ambiguity for the reader. But the fight to be both the first and last word on your work is a battle you lost the moment you decided you wanted to be read. When your story sails off to friends, to teachers, to editors, or to the great vast sea of the reading public—suddenly it isn’t your story anymore. Now, as the saying goes, you have shared your story, and now, despite what the copyright date might read, it belongs to everyone.

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