Make Space for the Reader

The reader and writer relationship is probably the hardest and most important relationship to master, when taking the leap from writing for ourselves to writing for an audience. After the first draft is written, we decide what our purpose is, what we want to impart, and what steps we can take to have our readers experience empathy. Sometimes this is accomplished through what is called interiority, the disclosing of the inner self of characters. Other times, staging and gestures can be just as, or even more impactful.

This is especially true when we write about painful or emotionally charged moments. We can get so caught up in our own expression that we don’t allow the reader enough space to bring their emotions in. Sometimes this is on purpose–we decide the writer is the important one, and we need the reader to stand as witness. Other times, centering our own emotions can actually get in the way of our readers experiencing empathy, and as a result, instead of evoking emotions in our readers, we can end up stifling them, and our writing goes flat. Today we will be taking a close look at an excerpt from short story collection No God like the Mother, written by 2020 Ken Kesey Award Winner, Kesha Ajọsẹ Fisher of Portland, for an illustration of fantastic writing, and of reader centering.

No God Like the Mother is a short story collection that travels from Lagos, Nigeria, to the Red Sea, to Paris, to a rainy PNW suburb. The scene we find ourselves in here leaves us in the immediate aftermath of loss.

“With a hand over her heart, she shook her head from side to side. Papa nodded and stared at the bawling baby who had replaced his wife. His massive hands would not rise to accept his son. He pivoted on his cane and turned his back to the midwife. She rocked the baby silent and handed him to me.”

(Fisher 2019)

The moment is heart wrenching. A husband has lost his wife, the narrator, and their new baby brother have lost their mother. This moment will continue to shape the rest of these characters’ lives, and you can feel it reverberating in the echoes of all of the pivots, the rocking, in the actions of the hands. The subject matter alone would be enough to elicit strong emotions. But Fisher is working some magic with her language, and her positioning to render this moment even more powerfully.

Writer’s Tip: What do you notice about the sentences? Are they long? Short? Simple? Complicated? Read them aloud. How do they land in your mouth?

In the presence of emotional content, Fisher has pared back on any emotional language, and instead focuses on staging and gesture. The body tells so much more than words can in moments like these, and perhaps all the time.

The midwife has her hand on her heart, and shakes her head. And we can infer that the mother didn’t make it. The father stares. Turns his back to her. She hands the baby to the main character. We are spared any dialogue or interiority in this moment, and given just the observable details. The sentences are direct. They are to the point. They don’t ramble. There are no extra words. We are not told how to feel, or even how the characters are feeling. Instead we are allowed to experience it ourselves.

Writing Prompt: Depict something tragic. Large or small. Instead of describing the emotions your characters feel, describe only the physical aspects and gestures.

Let your readers supply the emotion from the physicality you present.

After the first or second draft, it’s no longer about you. It’s about making your reader feel what your characters are feeling. And no one likes to be told what to feel. And it wouldn’t work, even if they did.

There are so many other elements to admire in Fisher’s writing–the absolute clarity of the characters (who is doing what) just by using the clear pronouns, he, she, me, (which is way harder than she makes it look), and we could do yet another read through for the use of the passive voice to highlight the lack of control in two key moments -“who had replaced” and “would not rise,” in comparison to the active voice of the rest of the passage, and so much more, but we can leave that for another post.

Pick a passage of something you love and do some close reading! It always inspires.

Fisher, Kesha Ajọsẹ. No God like the Mother. Inkwater Press, 2019. 

Leah Velez, Content and Curriculum Coordinator, Wordcrafters in Eugene