Letting go of the Imagined Reader
When I was first thinking seriously about writing, my biggest fear was not that nobody would read the novel, but how all my imagined readers would respond to it. The huge amount of optimism required to envisage droves of future readers invested enough in my as-yet unwritten manuscript to have an opinion about it is, in retrospect, endearing. The possibility that the manuscript might one day be read provided motivation, giving me the loosest kind of deadline. But my fear of this anonymous reader became, at times, paralysing.
In the years before I started working in earnest on what would become my first novel, What Red Was, I spent so much time imagining the reader at the other end of my manuscript, writing and re-writing on the basis of her ever-changing opinion, that I had no space to ask myself what I really wanted to write about. My reader was fickle, critical, permanently dissatisfied. It got to the point, when I had been dedicating every weekend and evening to writing for over a year, that I was so frustrated, so unhappy, I stopped writing altogether.
"I spent so much time imagining the reader at the other end of my manuscript, writing and re-writing on the basis of her ever-changing opinion, that I had no space to ask myself what I really wanted to write about."
In retrospect, stopping at this point, when I was so demotivated, my confidence shredded without me ever having shown my writing to more than a couple of close friends, was the best thing I could have done for my writing. I stopped entirely, and I gave myself no deadline by which to return to it, but instead began to think seriously about careers I could pursue instead. I was not sure I would ever return to writing. After all, I’d seen and heard how lonely writing could be, how punishing, how difficult a career.
At this point, I let go entirely of my imaginary reader. There was no longer any room for her. In fact, it was around the time I gave up writing that I began to suffer from delayed post-traumatic stress disorder, having been raped some years before. My mind was completely dominated by my memories of the assault, which were only now surfacing from the depths of my subconscious, and writing was far from my mind – at least, in the form that I had known it: the kind of writing that might one day be read.
Though I wrote a little, when I did open my laptop, I wrote no reader in mind, but only ever for myself. Though I was writing about my experience rape, at first it felt far too raw to be used for fiction. If I wrote about it, wouldn’t I be cheapening it? If it really had hurt me as much as I claimed it had, then surely it would be too difficult to share, to broadcast so publicly; if I used it for fiction, to progress my career, no less, then wouldn’t I be undermining the validity of my own experience, and the experience of other rape survivors and victims?
"I had realised that if I wanted to write, I needed to banish the thoughts of that potential reader and their imagined judgements."
I could think of no answer to these questions. So instead, I ignored them. But inevitably, I wanted to go back to writing. And I had realised that if I wanted to write, I needed to banish the thoughts of that potential reader and their imagined judgements. I wrote instead with the conviction that the manuscript would never be shared with anybody, that it would certainly never be published, that I was doing it for myself and only myself. The first draft of the book I wrote over the following nine months was messy, nonsensical, full of inconsistencies. And I never did show that draft to anybody; instead, I printed it out, and edited it, over and over.
When, eventually, I was ready to share the manuscript with friends, and then agents, and then editors, what they contributed was not a relentless stream of criticism, as I had feared, but the wisdom and experience of their own lives, as readers and as human beings, which they gifted generously to every draft I presented them with, until eventually, I had something I was ready to part with.
"I wrote instead with the conviction that the manuscript would never be shared with anybody, that it would certainly never be published, that I was doing it for myself and only myself."
Now that What Red Was has been published, I am spending less time thinking about who might be reading it than I am on working on my next novel. Here, I am doing my best to keep the imaginary reader at bay, to use her eagle-eye only in moderation, when I am at the end of a draft, or when I am robust enough to take her criticism without giving up writing altogether. Most of all, I try to remind myself that if I spend as much time and effort constructing the inner life of my own characters as that of my imagined reader, then I might just have something worth sharing with her.
What Red Was is Rosie Price's first novel. Here's just a taste of some of the praise her debut has garnered:
"Subversive and sophisticated… [Rosie Price’s] exploration of sexual violence and class makes for an unforgettable read" (Elle, **Books to Look Out for in 2019**) "Bringing together themes of survival, agency, complicity, self-denial and, ultimately, courage, this assured book is one of the most powerful debuts you’ll ever read." (Stylist) "An incredibly nuanced exploration of the complexities of sexual violence, WHAT RED WAS heralds the arrival of a major new literary talent. This is an important book." (Louise O'Neill, author of ASKING FOR IT and ALMOST LOVE)