‘Who is your ideal reader?’ It was the question posed by one of The Saturdays – the given name of the five of us who zoom-write at the weekend. Hard to say, was my answer, easier to say who my ideal writer is. After all, I’ve thought about that, I’ve even acted upon it: told them. I’ve written to an author to say: I love your work; I love this piece; this line; these two words; you made me think of an instance I had forgotten; you made me reflect; you stirred the pot. And, sometimes, I’ve received a response (which is the gilding – to receive an answer is not my motivation), a short line to say that my pleasure has, in turn, brought them pleasure; and I find something mutually grace-giving about this. And did these writers have any inkling of me, their ideal reader, when they put pen to paper, finger to keyboard? Of course not, no more than I know him or her for whom I write.
Initially, I wrote for myself; words that were an inelegant wringing out of a tired, wet dishcloth. Jotters became a way of discarding the sodden spoils of what I had mopped up over the years. I’d take them to the sink, to the gutter, wring them out by the drain where no one could see, watch them be freely washed away, swallowed into a vast, contaminated sluice of words that the world has no need to read. And it can take a while, this word-treatment tank, shedding and purifying, before more considered, subtle, thoughtful words run clear. It’s like making summer jam: boil, lower to a simmer, watch the scum rise to the surface and gently skim off the acrid foam with the underside of a wooden spoon, then watch the pure, evenly coloured distillation of sweet preserve emerge. But, like the jam, my words don’t always set; sometimes they run and slide, slip off the spoon of my pen like liquified jelly, or a soft compôte, and I’m embarrassed that anyone might taste them. When this happens, the words are for me alone. I bottle them, screw the lid tight, and only when provisions are low, do I return to the jar, peep in, and maybe even come to believe it might be something worth sharing, offering up.
But I have avoided answering the question: for whom do I write? Is it true? Am I my own reader? Do I write for me? These mild, snaking stories that say little but observe; go nowhere terribly glamorous, but trundle the laneways like my friend’s old-new 1968 Triumph Herald. He drives his vintage car back in time, tracing the roads it once travelled, only to realise everything has changed. I travel without a car, in my mind, embellish the things I can no longer touch, change the memory, add piping and braid, bias bind the endings that were never quite as sharp and straight as I would have liked. I take such liberties, so many that my reader, were they to know that time or place, might say, ‘ah – but!’ or, ‘you mis-remember!’ or, ‘this is how it was.’
Perhaps, then, my ideal reader is you, unknown, quiet, marginal. That person who accepts the re-remembered version of a life; the delicately changed ending or the radically altered beginning. The stranger who will, someday, write from a Boston suburb, or the far reaches of Western Australia, or from the layered history of Jerusalem to say: thank you for your words, they meant something to me. And I may never know them or get to meet them, and that will be enough.