The first inclination a writer has when she reads Rebecca Solnit’s remarks on what a book is is to say, “No, that’s not right: a book exists first in the mind of its creator; it has its home there, also.”
Our inclinations to think that way rest on the perception of our books being fully thought-out creations. Sometimes they are. The more thought-out the work, the better it is. This is the idea behind the old remark, “A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be rewritten.”
As any writer will tell you, however, the books we create seldom feel fully thought-out. We try to get them into that shape, of course, but there’s always something that’s lacking, or something that’s not quite right about what we’ve done. Even poets (especially poets) feel this way. Robert Frost once admitted he’d written poems with lines he could never get quite right.
Even at our best, then, we are not likely to produce a work that is the complete, accurate representation of what we wanted to do. That outcome would be discouraging, even crushing, if it were not for one thing: the reader. There might be a line, a paragraph, or a section of our work that hits the reader’s mind, and she’ll take those words and run with them. She will create, in that moment, a perception, or even an idea, that opens up a previously-hidden possibility in human thought or relationships. In that moment, the work exists more fully than it could under the writer’s hand, perhaps more fully than it ever will again, no matter how many readers of it there may be.
The book will, like a musical score, exist differently in the minds of everyone who reads it. We know the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, but every orchestra plays them differently. Just as important, every audience member hears a different version of the symphony inside her head. That’s not wrong; that’s not chaos; that’s the infinite diversity of the human experience at work, even at the quantum level, and we must do all we can to encourage it.
An author’s words upon the page are invitations to feel. They are suggestions for thought. Those words can, and should, direct us and guide us in a particular direction, but that’s all they can do. Whether a book lives or dies as a work of art is not entirely up to us. It’s also up to our readers, who must bring their intelligence and imagination to our work, as well. They are the ones who decide whether and for how long our book will remain a part of the great conversation we are having with each other about the life we are living.
In a moment of exasperation at not getting paid, Harlan Ellison once called writers “the whores of the profession.” That’s not quite right, even if most of us fully sympathize with his opinion. More accurately, writers are midwives, assisting in the birth of a creation that comes from a source all of us are aware of but which none of us can see. We hope that child, that living thing, will survive and prosper, but there comes a point when we must let it go, and trust that it will find readers, who are the true sustenance of any creation born of words.