Hiring a private book coach is expensive, and is most decidedly an activity reserved for people who have their basic needs covered. Usually people come to me when they are burning to write a book but don’t know how to proceed; when they have tried but failed to get a book into reader’s hand and have decided that there is nothing more important than making that happen; or when they are at a place in their career where they understand the value -- and can afford – professional help. Because of these realities, I work with a disproportionate number of privileged people – and often, learning how to deal with that reality ends up being part of the work we do.
Why? At its most fundamental level, a writer’s goal is to connect with readers. You can’t connect with readers if you don’t know who you are, who they are, and where your points of connection – or disconnection -- might be.
This is an extreme example, but I once worked with a woman who had immigrated to this country because her husband was tapped to be a top executive of a massively well-known and profitable US company. She wanted to write a memoir about the difficulty of navigating the US culture – finding a nanny, getting your kids into a top school, choosing which neighborhood to live in.
It was a very interesting premise, in many ways – a wealthy immigrant turning the lens on life in the Unites States – and she was a very good writer. She had difficulty, however, understanding that the vast majority of her readers wouldn’t share her point of view. She refused to acknowledge the deep truth of her situation – that most people simply don’t have the resources she had -- and as a result, her work never got off the ground, at least not under my watch. (I hope it has since then!)
I often see this issue come up, not just in memoir, but in fiction, and narrative non-fiction too. It comes up in everything. When I point out that not every reader might relate, or that there is a lack of self-awareness about the author coming from a place of privilege, the writers ask how to deal with that reality – how do you let the reader into your reality and your point of view. How do you connect with people who aren’t necessarily like you?
I hope you see that this question is one that every writer ultimately has to ask every single day, about every single line they write, because none of us comes from the same place as anyone else.
We each go through the world in our skin with our own experiences with our own point of view. Trying to get other people see our point of view is pretty much the primary task of all human beings and certainly a primary task of the writer.
This struck me yesterday when I was at the gym. A few days before, a guy had come bursting into the gym during class – shoeless, soaking wet, yelling in a very heavy accent, frantic, and gesturing wildly to our instructor. We all freaked out until we understood that he was a plumber working on a flood in a nearby business and he was asking for a long metal rod to turn off the water main. Our instructor lent him the rod, and when he left, we all speculated on the whole strange scenario – imagining all kinds of spy and thriller plots that involved the guy using the rod for everything but turning off water.
The following day, in the midst of doing a long set of torturous squats, I said, “So did that guy bring back the water iron?”
In my mind, my question was 100% clear. The rod had looked kind of like a tire iron to me. The guy had wanted it to turn off the water. The question that had all been in our minds was whether he would steal it. Three facts, one clear question – “So did that guy bring back the water iron?”
The person on my left (the instructor) had absolutely no idea what I was talking about – zip, zero, ziltch. I could have been speaking Greek as far as she was concerned. The person on my right knew precisely what I was talking about – but that was dumb luck.
The words I chose were decidedly bizarre. They did not take into consideration the fact that other people don’t live in my head, where a long metal rod used to turn off the water is naturally a water iron, where “the guy” is clearly the guy from the other day who ran in barefoot and wet.
So back to the question at hand – how does a writer prevent this kind of disconnect? How does a writer connect with people who aren’t like them, which is to say everyone?
Last week, there was a perfect example – the letter that Jennifer Lawrence wrote for Lena Dunham’s new Lenny Letter, about the pay gap in Hollywood between men and women. No matter your politics, read this piece to see how Lawrence deftly navigates the minefield of being one of the wealthiest women in Hollywood and trying to talk to us about not getting paid enough money.
She KNOWS that we are all going to say, “Oh wah wah wah poor Jennifer Lawrence didn’t get an extra couple million dollars on top of the many million dollar paycheck she made for The Hunger Games.”
She KNOWS our kneejerk reaction is going to be that we think she’s a spoiled brat who doesn’t feel our pain.
She KNOWS she has to say something authentic to connect with us.
What she does is disarm us at every turn by being straightforward, honest, self aware, a tiny bit self deprecating, but also confident and strong. She is writing with enormous authority – which comes from knowing your point and your purpose (is there any single double about hers?); knowing your audience; and being generous with your emotions and your experiences.
In this link to a Word doc (where you can see my editorial comments), I break it down.