Sunday, February 15, 2009


Whenever I open a book lately, I find myself thinking about my expectations as a reader.

We all have expectations of what we want to happen in a story.... or what we think should happen... don’t we?

Who among us are mystery addicts wanting nothing more than a good mystery?

And who relishes the fast-paced plot of an action or adventure story?

Or the sparks of a romance?

Or, or, or...

See what I mean? Each of us comes to a book with some sort of expectations, and we expect the author to fulfill those expectations or else we consider the book a disappointment.

And, conversely, each book is written with the author’s awareness (on some level) of her reader’s (and her own) expectations for the story.

Viewed this way, writing is a delicate dance between author and reader, each feeling his or her way past the other’s expectations.

I began mulling over the notion of expectations recently after finishing a collection of stories written by a close friend.

Each story was filled with descriptions so keenly observed that the words themselves seemed to contain the essence of the objects described as the writer hiked along various mountain and wooded trails, sharing his discoveries of the natural world.

What I found compelling about each story was how the author succeeded in holding my attention without relying much on conventional plot-lines.

Plots were present, but they were barely shadows, not much more than the bare bones of beginnings, middles, and endings, narrow trails that sometimes were lost to view and then would reappear a few steps (or pages) further on.

Rather, what wove a spell was the power of the writer’s language, the stunning beauty of the descriptions, and the unexpected insights and personal revelations (about the author and his relationship to nature) that shined through on page after page.

By some standards--the expectations of the what-happens-next, plot-driven school of writing–his stories lacked the necessary ingredients to hold a reader’s interest.

Yet by other standards–the expectations of the nature-writing-school of exposition–his “stories” or essays were stunning, a virtuoso performance by a master craftsman in the tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Carson, and Abbey.

Long ago my friend, who has spent years writing and has published widely, reconciled himself to his fate as a writer who might never achieve the popularity that comes with fulfilling the expectations of mass fiction readers.

Nevertheless, he persists in writing against the grain, delighting in the “quiet” stories that bring him joy, even if such stories tend to get overlooked by readers (and publishers) seeking more of a “bang” than a “ripple.”

His poetic prose, nearly plotless, manages to satisfy his own expectations–and the expectations of his small circle of devoted readers. And with these expectations as markings to guide him on the trail, he continues to produce his own brand of stories, taking great pleasure in the act–and art–of writing.

Knowing what he loves to write about ... and how he wants to write about it... has helped my friend better understand what he expects of himself and his audience.

And I'm grateful to him, not only for sharing his newest collection but for unknowingly reminding me that writing is a dance between expectations and fulfillment--the writer's and the reader's.

For more on writing and expectations, visit:,M1

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