Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Invisible partners

Farfetched got me hooked on the animal photos and captions at I Can Has Cheezburger. (They invite readers to use their photos.) This funny one got me thinking about our invisible writing partner--the reader. Some writers never think about their readers, others tailor their books completely to what they hope their readers will want. I used to claim I was in the first camp, but I think that was probably never true. At this stage in my career, I feel pretty confident that whatever pleases me will also please certain readers. That means I am free to consider their preferences without feeling as if I am sacrificing my integrity.

The former U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, sometimes talks to his invisible partners in his poems, as in this one, A Portrait of the Reader With a Bowl of Cereal, where he refutes Yeats' dictum that "A poet. . .never speaks directly, as to someone at the breakfast table." I'll quote just the first and last stanzas. . .

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things--
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries--
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

( )

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour--
then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.


Nancy P said...

My spoon is dripping milk, and I am ready to listen to you.

Or will be, when I wake up in the morning. :)

Anonymous said...

I love that poem, Nancy! And I actually remembered to check in tonight, instead of in the morning!

I've been trying to keep in mind the saying "If the writer cries, the reader cries." I'll look forward to having readers, and considering their likes and dislikes!

Now I'm off to bed, too. But probably won't be awake before you. (You'll notice I didn't mention beating...)

AndiF said...

Lovely poem to wake up to, Nancy.

I love being your partner. It's the perfect relationship -- you do the work; I enjoy it. :)

Morning all.

Nancy P said...

Shh, Beth's still asleep.

Damn, Andi, I must be slipping, if I can't get you to do the work.

I'm glad you guys like the poem. Here's a link to the whole poem. You have to scroll down to March 4.

Anonymous said...

I wish...

Someday I'll get more than 5 hours/sleep a night again.

Thanks for the rest of the poem!

FARfetched said...

Whoa. Heavy stuff for someone still trying to down that first cup of coffee.

Have you ever written something you don't like? I don't mean that the writing was bad — but you didn't like the story you were writing & wouldn't read it if someone else wrote it?

I didn't think so. :-) I've written a couple of real stinkers, but it was the writing, not the story itself, that makes me cringe. I believe any well-written story has an audience waiting for it — the trick is matching them up.

katiebird said...

Good morning! I love Billy Collins and this is perfect, I actually AM sitting here eating cereal (well, getting READY to eat cereal) and listening to him.

FAR's comment about writers not liking what they write is something I think about with business writing.

When I have to write something complex at work one of my criteria is, "Would I read this?" But, I think that at least half the people I work with don't give that a thought.

They send out important information that is virtually unreadable. With no signals guiding the reader to the Punch Line -- and in business writing there is ALWAYS a punch line.


One woman in particular sends everything out in the same format with paragraph after paragraph of deeply technical details. And buried in the middle of the second to the last paragraph is the punchline: "Friday, leave your computer on" "All electricity in the building will be shut off at 3pm Wednesday" "Use this form, not that one"

Where's Billy with his poetry....

Nancy P said...

Yeah, I have written and even published stories I don't like, far. Sad to say. That includes three of my books, and no, I'm not saying which ones, and at least a couple of shoft stories that I submitted because I had a deadline, but not because I felt good about them. I find them embarrassing to read. In each case, I knew I had done the best I could to make them good stories, but that it wasn't enough. It wasn't the writing, per se--although that wasn't necessarily great, either--but the stories.

They did find readers who liked them--at least the books did, I don't know about the short stories--but I think those readers are wrong. :p

It appears, however, that I can't do that anymore. If I don't like the story I'm telling, I can't keep going with it. I suspect this is progress!

Nancy P said...

Hey, kb. What kind of cereal? I'm partial to Crispex, myself.

Those people who "bury the lede"? Do they talk that way, too?

AndiF said...

Nancy, you are the champ at passive-aggressive freebie research but you ain't pulling off passive-aggressive writing without offering up some bucks. I do play for free but real work will cost ya.

katiebird said...

Yes they do. Blah, Blah, Blah, do this by tomorrow, blah, blah... What did you say?

How hard is, "say what you want to say, say it again & repeat it"? Cut out everything else, it can be said later.

I'm not saying I'm a good writer, but my main rule, "Would I read this?" (do I hear blah, blah, blah instead of actual words?) has kept me from exposing some pretty terrible writing. said...

OMG, the Cat!

I finally, after all these years (18 to be closer to exact), have an illustration for my all-time favorite mystery novel quote.

Allingham's Albert Champion to Amanda Fitton (1930s dance band is playing the the background): "Tell or Tango."

P.S. Not bad advice for the writer, either. said...

"Tell or tango" works well for people who bury the lead in person. I suspect you need the music, too.

I'm just not very visual, I never see anything in clouds either. Sorry to say...

But, Maryb, clouds see something in you. said...

Yeats was a musician. Thank god we have all these other poets on this side of the ocean to balance the tides.

This is just to say
I have eaten the plums
that were
in the ice box

then wrote a poem
that was
and read
by millions,

You were so
at Divorce court

so sweet
so cold

[ Barry Lane ]

FARfetched said...

So I'm scarfing my oatmeal and reading that Barry Lane poem. As Daughter Dearest would say, "that was… random."


Was going to make chicken ramen for lunch, but I *thought* I had a can of peas for it. Nope. Still have corn, so I'll make oyster stew instead. Once that's started, I have to do some dayjob writing. Speaking of which, KB, I like that "in business writing there's ALWAYS a punch line." I think in your shoes, I would read your co-workers' emails backwards. Get the punch line, then as much supporting info as you want. Then delete. said...

Oops, sorry, for my usual failure at concept transition. Dang. The original plums poem (Wm Carlos Wms) had the word "breakfast" in it, I promise. :-)

Kelly McCullough said...

Treadblogging again, Yay! So I'll make this brief and check back in later. Hi (waves). I've written stuff I didn't like in the reader sense as well. Though mine is a different flavor. I don't like to read horror, it creeps me out. I do however have to write a bit of it from time to time just to get the ick or aiee out of my head--sort of the author version of exorcism.

Kimberly Frost said...


Love Billy Collins' poem and love the "I Can Has Cheezburger" website which I haven't been to in far too long. Animals are cute, but animal photos with hilarious captions are priceless.

I'm having a homemade hazelnut mocha and contemplating the stock market and my novel. Kind of a tall order of thinking when I just woke up and had my shower. Hopefully the sugar/caffeine rush will hit and I'll spark to something brilliant.

Morning, everybody & have a great day! :)

Kelly McCullough said...

Kimberly, wanted to thank you for the plug on your site the other day. Much appreciated. Also, was wondering (if you can share yet) who your publisher is going to be. Also, what genre? The title suggests it could be any of a number of things.

And then back to the treadmill.

maryb said...

I love Billy Collins, what a great way to start the day. And what a nice way for him to think of his readers.

One of my favorite Billy Collins poems has to do with fear of getting on a plane. I can't remember the name. When I get home later I'll look it up.

Kelly McCullough said...

I do think of my reader and I talked about it a little in a post a while back on Wyrdsmiths called: The Interface

"Writers have things that really excite them. Readers have things that really excite them. The trick is connecting the two, because in real terms the two are only intermittently the same. Furinstance, the thing that really makes me want to write is creating a cool new world and bringing people there. Of course, there's no market for writing travelogues for places that don't exist. So, I need to make sure that I find some way of connecting my passion to my readers, because no readers means no sales which means having to find something else to do. That means telling a really cool story that'd peopled with characters that my readers want to spend time with."

I also talked about it while talking about what the writer owes the reader.

Kelly McCullough said...

Wow, it sure is quiet in here. I guess no one will mind if I finish off the breakfast pastries and help myself to FM chair for a bit. Wake me if anything interesting happens.

Conda said...

Again, I'm late to the party (you guys have so much fun) but just had to say, loved the poem and the cat! My cat never is that active unless there's food involved.

Nancy P said...

Okay, where was I. . .?

Well, damn, andi, I guess I'll have to keep doing it myself. Cause I am cheaper than I am lazy.

Katiebird, then I'll say it. . .you are a good writer!

Ghost, that's very funny. Who'da thunk you'd fill in such a life-altering blank this morning. I blog to serve.

Nancy P said...

Ghost, the first two stanzas of the WCW poem make me laugh. Sooo snide, that boy.

Hey, far, I'm going to be catching up on your fiction soon. The bloggier I go, the behinder I get. I don't like to miss a chapter!

Kelly, that's really interesting. Writing Exorcism. Yeah, I can see that. I think I did one of those, myself, recently.

Nancy P said...

Maryb, I don't recall that Billy Collins poem, so I'd like to know the name of it. He's just great, isn't he? If you ever get a chance to go to a reading, GO. Don't wear socks, though, unless you won't mind having them charmed off of you.

Hi, Kimberly. Did the sugar/caffeine rush work?

Conda, I would relate well to your cat.

katiebird said...


Nancy, You've MET Billy Collins?

Nancy P said...

Not met. I wish. I just went to a public reading at Rockhurst College a few years ago.

katiebird said...

And he took your socks!? WoW. That must have been some reading.

I want to start going to events again. I used to get out more.

Nancy P said...

lol! Fortunately, it wasn't winter.

katiebird said...

I wish it wasn't winter today. I'm numb from the knees down.

Nancy P said...

Have you seen those electric throw blankets? There's wonderful for cold legs and feet.

katiebird said...

No, I have a fear of electricity. That it gives you cancer.

Nancy P said...

Mmmm, so you live by candlelight?

katiebird said...

I knew you'd spot that. I mean up-close electricity, electric blankets & hot-pads & blow dryers & high-voltage power-lines.

When I have a bad headache, I do turn off ALL electricity. And it helps.

ALSO, we decided to keep the cell phone out of the bedroom (I've been using it as an alarm clock) and since then, my earache has cleared up & I've slept every night straight through.

That invisible hummmmmmmm: It's killing us.

Nancy P said...

Invisible is our word today.

I'm going to be invisible as I go catch up on some tv.

My tv "strike" in symapthy with the writers lasted a month--then I realized I might be the only person on earth doing it, and somehow I didn't think that was going to put a penny in the writers' pockets. Now if EVERYbody had done it. . .but noooooo.

Far? Are you still striking?

Anonymous said...

I am! I am!


katiebird said...

(whispering) I don't think he watches much TV. Something had to give -- all those words.... I don't think he could do that AND watch TV.

katiebird said...

Hi Beth!

Anonymous said...

Hi kb! And Nancy! I'm here - just lurking. Watching Duke basketball, packing, and printing my mss for my aunt to read this weekend. The second draft isn't TOTALLY done, but close enough for her.

Sorry about your cold feet!

maryb said...

"Passengers" by Billy Collins
a link

Nancy P said...

Beth,lol. Yeah, that's some tv strike you've got goin' on. :p
and may I say, GOOD WORK!

lol to you, too kb.

Maryb, thanks! I've never read that one before. I think his magic is his ability to hone in on one present moment, and let it lift off into fantasy, and then see where it takes him back into reality. If that makes any sense. And he sees the details. Oh, my, he sees the details.

Nancy P said...

And you guys, I read the Oscars will be on. Then I read they'll probably be on. Fingers crossed. I still need to see Juno, though, and No Country for Old Men.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nancy! You know how it feels, seeing that stack of paper on the table. Pretty cool. Now if it was truly finished, and not sort of finished...

Anyway, thanks. :-)

Yay for the Oscars! I have a lot of movies to see, I fear...

maryb said...

He often throws a little moment in toward the end of a poem that somehow grounds his poem in the everyman and shifts the readers attention to thinking - hey, that's something I would do, or Hey, that's something funny I would think.

In passengers I love the deep seriousness and tension leading up to the end and then:

"or, so as not to involve the police,"

And in the poem you used - the spoon dripping milk right there at the end of the poem.

katiebird said...

I'd like to buy one of his books. Does anyone have a recommendation?

boran2 said...

Good evening all! Did I read that the Oscars are a go? Unfortunately I haven't been to the movies in a while. I need to hit Hollywood Video really soon.

katiebird said...

Hi B2,
The nominations were a couple of days ago. So that's a plus.

¿Maybe I should use the nominations as a viewing list? ....

Nancy P said...

Kb, what I would do is go to the Borders at 93rd, find him in the poetry section and then just open a few. You'll find the right book that way. Otherwise, if you'd like to buy it online, you might like the one from which I took our morning poem. It's a colleciton called, "Picnic, Lightning."

Maryb may have a fav.

I have five, I think, of his books and I pick them up a lot.

Nancy P said...

The nominations are terrific this year, but let me ask you something,katieb. . .how do you feel about very violent movies? Cause there's a lot of that on the list.

Nancy P said...

Yeah, Maryb, it's delightful how funny he can be.

Good evening, boran2. We're going to live-blog the Oscars somewhere, maybe here, if you want to join us?

katiebird said...

Nancy, I totally forgot about going to Borders! Thanks, that's a good idea.

And I don't mind violence if I'm watching on DVD. It's easy enough to look away.

Nerina said...

This is great info to know.