Po Bronson: Knowing Your Audience
(from Issue One)
LET’S SAY YOU’RE writing a true story about a man who tried to kill himself after reading a book.
You face a crucial decision immediately. If the book he read is a catalyst for his suicide attempt, then what do we need to know about this book to believe it changed a life? And how do you make the story of that life feel real, even while it is real?
Do you follow it chronologically, such that we have to learn about the man’s wife and daughters before we get to the suicide attempt? Or do you put the suicide attempt right at the beginning, so the reader will accept it? That usually works. But then is it a tease if the man fails miserably at taking his own life? If he did not try very hard to kill himself—no blades, no cars over a cliff—then is it a red herring?
IN THIS CASE, the book in question was mine. In January 2003, I published a volume of nonfiction that told the stories of 50 people changing their lives.
The man who tried to kill himself was a guy in Des Moines named Bruce Johnson.1 The night was February 2, 2003.
I will tell you all the details of this man’s situation, and how my book came to play a part in it. But in exchange, you have to indulge me—because what I’m really interested in is how stories are told, the power they have over our lives, and the connection between the two. How does the manner of telling enhance or detract from the power the story has on readers? I’m particularly curious about the gap between artsy literary technique (a language of its own), the blunt way real people tell stories, and whether that gap helps or hurts the power of art.
BRUCE JOHNSON WAS a strapping 35-year-old, the father of two darling young girls, Elizabeth and Anna. Three months earlier, his wife, Sharon, had asked him for a divorce, and Bruce discovered she was having an affair. She justified it this way: Bruce was emotionally withdrawn, out of touch with his feelings.
By Bruce’s own admission, this was true. He had recently passed the Iowa bar. He was on the verge of actually having to become a lawyer like his father and brother—something he never wanted.
Bruce was humiliated that something so petty was the cause of his depression. Legitimate depression is supposed to come from being a soldier in Iraq or losing a child to cancer. Bruce’s problem deserved not a lick of sympathy: He had to take a well-paying job in a nice clean office filling out papers and writing legal arguments. Boo hoo. So he continued to retreat in silence.
BY JANUARY 2003, Bruce and Sharon were separated. Sharon had given him my book, hoping it might help him escape from his fog. Bruce read it in three days. Instead of being uplifted by the stories, he was crushed by the realization that he did not have the strength to even leave the house, much less grab life by the balls. The book had nothing to do with his underlying problems, but it was a catalyst for his reaction to them.
The night of February 2, Sharon picked up the girls from Bruce’s house. She noticed he seemed particularly depressed. After she left, Bruce set out a bottle of pills and several fifths of hard alcohol. His plan was to drink until he had the will to swallow the pills. But he couldn’t even do this right. He drank until he blacked out. He got the pill bottle open, but he didn’t get any of its contents into his stomach. It was a classic cry for help.
Four days later, he wrote me an email and told me his story.
BY THEN, I had already developed an intense fear of my inbox. I’d received about a thousand emails from readers of What Should I Do With My Life? The immediacy of their reaction was rewarding, but their intensity was overwhelming. They weren’t just reading the book and talking about it. The book was propelling them to take action and rearrange their lives.
For me, that was weird. Books are richest when they live in their own parallel universe, the world of the mind. When a book breaks the fourth wall and actually triggers change in a reader’s life—is that a testament to its power, or does it destroy the richness of that parallel universe? I feared the latter.
THEN WHY WAS I reading and responding to these emails from the other side?
I never wanted to be a writer who closed himself off from the world. I’ve always tried to be available to readers, openly inviting them to write to me and share their thoughts.
I suppose I do it as a way to counteract the din of false voices that comes from my big New York publisher, which often seems like a bureaucratic leviathan, nimble as an oil tanker. The ongoing advice from its representatives grates on me, and by the time my book comes out, its packaging is a painful compromise largely determined by marketers who haven’t even read the product they’re trying to push.
Readers, on the other hand, are their own masters, and they are always unflinchingly honest and revealing. They mirror back to me my best lines. They notice the details I sweated over. Knowing they are out there—real and observant and thoughtful—calms me when I write.
I believe the particular choices we make in how to tell a story either unlock or undermine its power. The best-told stories make a reader uncomfortable.
FOR BRUCE JOHNSON, I had told these stories a little too well. His letter began like any other. Unlike the way I started telling this story to you, he buried the lede designed to grab a reader’s attention. Instead, Bruce took me back to his marriage circa 1997, then walked me forward as his misery deepened. He wrote pages before reaching the present tense, the dramatic action that made his letter memorable.
As I read of his suicide attempt, I was aware that if he was writing to me, he was clearly still alive. But I was hooked on the story. Did he need his stomach pumped? Did anybody find him? Did his call for help get answered? Did Sharon change her mind and realize she was being too selfish?
The drama of his story did not come from the manner of its telling. His language was neither raw nor polished, and the narration lacked the timely drop of detail my ear craved. The drama came from its simplicity. Bruce was so ordinary and pathetic that his words created an unlikely spell. No writer could compose this way and get away with it. But a real person, confessing in an email, is granted the all-important suspension of disbelief, or, in this case, suspension of disinterest.
BRUCE WOKE UP the morning after his suicide attempt to the sound of the telephone. Sharon was worried about him. He did not find it cathartic or joyous to wake up alive. It was more like, “Crap, I’m still here.” He told Sharon what he’d done, no doubt hoping she’d rush over, bring the girls, and reunite. Instead, she called Bruce’s brother, who called his father. The Lawyer.
The Lawyer and Bruce had a long conversation about why The Lawyer’s Son would be so depressed that he’d even consider ending his life. Yes, the divorce—of course. But was that really it? Finally, Bruce brought up his career, shamefully. The Lawyer said what any father would: “Son, maybe you need a different direction. You need to do what will make you happy. And I’ll help you. Whatever it is.”
Bruce took his dad back to 1997. Before going to law school, Bruce considered opening a restaurant. He had taken the wrong fork in the road, and it took a life-altering event to admit it. The Lawyer was more than supportive. He pledged to help Bruce open the restaurant. Over the next two days, Bruce felt more excitement and interest in a pursuit than he’d felt in a long time.
Thus his letter came to me, the author of the catalytic book. Bruce was writing not to burden me or criticize my work, but to thank me. Just four days removed from attempting suicide, he was happy. He could see his life again, and it would be his. Soup and sandwiches. End of letter.
HOLY COW. A happy ending was not what I expected. Nothing in the preceding pages hinted that his story would end happily ever after. In a single paragraph, the narrative turned so fast that I wasn’t ready to accept the new reality.
All of a sudden, I became a critic of this story he had written, putting it back in the parallel universe where how well the story is told—instead of whether or not it ends on an up note—is most important. As a reader, I felt cheated. I felt that the writer had slapped on a happy ending, like in a poorly crafted Hollywood blockbuster.
“Hey, you can’t do that,” a little voice in me said to Bruce. “You need to tell me more about your father. You needed to mention that 1997 decision earlier. You need to slow down here, where the story turns. Walk me through days two, three, and four. Make it credible. You can’t wrap it all up! You’ve left too many loose ends. Is your wife still screwing some other guy? Does she love him?”
Bruce had missed dramatic opportunities, too. For instance, when a man tries to take his life—albeit poorly—what goes through his head when he next sees his daughter’s face? Is he ashamed of his actions, or is he thrilled to see this day? Of this, he told me nothing.
And how quickly can a man come out of his shell? Was Bruce now in touch with his feelings, abracadabra-like? Didn’t his transition to being “emotionally present” need to be articulated in order to be convincing?
OF COURSE, I wrote back to Bruce and said all sorts of sympathetic things. We corresponded for a few days, until the available details dried up. But I still felt cheated. It bugged me that real people get to tell stories artlessly, while writers have to be careful to gain credibility.
In fact, the most unbelievable action in Bruce’s letter was not the lame suicide attempt, but the ending: “I’m going to open a restaurant!” That left me hanging. Opening a restaurant is no easy thing. Was I supposed to actually believe he would do it? Was I supposed to pretend he wasn’t likely to lose all his money and a chunk of his dad’s?
Happy endings are the hardest thing in the world to write. It’s almost impossible to express respect and admiration for a character and not sound pat. Writers distrust happy endings because they never seem earned. We are too suspicious of the lingering underside. In the writer’s rulebook, stories never truly end. The sentences must end, but any presumption that the story actually ends—just like that!—rings false.
I wondered what would really happen to Bruce Johnson. But I had no more sources, or so I thought.
SHARON JOHNSON STARTED writing me that very week, but she never identified herself as connected to Bruce. She didn’t say, “I’m the ex-wife of a guy who tried to kill himself after reading your book.” In fact, she never mentioned Bruce at all. I knew it was Sharon by her name, where she lived, and the ages of her girls.
Now it was getting really bizarre. Two people from the same family both felt compelled to write to me, yet neither had told the other. The husband had attempted suicide, but the wife didn’t even mention it. Her letters were entirely about her own issues. Her first email lacked any humility and was critical of the book and the people in it, though she’d only read a quarter of it. I didn’t respond.
Then she wrote again and admitted that her discomfort with my book really came from making too many compromises in her own life. The book forced her to notice these compromises, so she’d just been blaming the messenger. Now she liked the book.
She said she was only 27 and already going through a divorce, etc. She once ran for the school board and wanted to do it again. She didn’t mention that she was the one leaving her husband, or that her husband had once swallowed his desires, but was now going to open a restaurant.
This was a telling omission that made me reconsider Bruce’s marriage. Sharon was apparently quick to judge, unfulfilled in her own life, and blind to the way one part of life seeps into another.
Her letters and this curious omission helped me sympathize with Bruce. It was also an interesting narrative technique. In his own letters, Bruce was not a likeable character; he was too straight. But his wife’s letters—and her neglect to mention her ex-husband’s suicide attempt—made him a likeable character. For the first time, I was sorta rooting for Bruce.
TRUE STORIES ARE a unique challenge. Bruce and Sharon told me their tale artlessly, yet it was compelling. Why? Because it was real. Amateur storytellers live and die on the premise of reality. If it’s their story, and it’s true, they can get away with telling it badly.
Meanwhile, we writers try to maintain what we hope are literary standards. Of course, we do it to make our stories sing, to make them unfold just so. We also do it because we are actually writing to each other. We use literary style as code. When we write, we send code to other writers: “I’m in the club.” We have this club to survive the brutality of publishing books. There’s a little voice in the back of our minds that squeaks, “Well, my publisher probably doesn’t get what I’m doing, and the readers at Barnes & Noble in Bumblefuck, Iowa, won’t get it, but at least other writers will understand what I’m doing.” At least I’m in the club.
How do we know who’s in the club? It’s right there in the sentences. Little things we do carry the code, like how we use white space, the rare appearance of adverbs, and how our stories end (never happily). We need this club because we imagine that the readers in Bumblefuck, Iowa, don’t care about books nearly as much as we writers do.
BUT WHAT IF that’s not true? What if Bumblefuck, Iowa, is Des Moines? And what if our readers are like Bruce and Sharon Johnson? What if they are educated but imperfect, can’t communicate all that well with each other, and are lonely despite being married and surrounded by family? What if they take books more seriously than most writers do? What if books are the only true friends they’ve got? What if they react to books more strongly than they react to each other?
If so, this calls into question the necessity of the literary techniques we employ. I’m not saying that we don’t need the club, because we do. But I am worried that we bend our stories to fit the literary rules in such a way that they no longer reflect people’s actual lives. Literary realism doesn’t allow for the abrupt happy ending. It calls for foreshadowing and character development and a kind of continuity. Otherwise, our narrator is not reliable.
HERE ARE THE facts about what has happened to Bruce and Sharon Johnson since February 2003. Not one of these details has been properly foreshadowed, so each will seem unrealistic. But they’re all true.
First, Bruce Johnson actually did open his restaurant, with the help of his father The Lawyer and his stepbrother. They opened a brewpub that has been written up several times in the local newspaper. The place is busy every night. Bruce is happy and a maestro in the kitchen. His chicken wrap is a favorite of local patrons. His stepbrother is younger by three years, and although they have different parents, they have almost the same last name: Johnson and Jonson.
Sharon Johnson married her lover at the end of 2003. He was almost twice her age, but he was passionate about gardening, sailing, and anything outdoors. He owned a cabin in the woods. He and Sharon were going to spend their first summer there, but he didn’t make it. He died in April, four months after their marriage. The girls took it hard. I even like Sharon now.
“KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE” gets a bad rap from writers. We think it’s dangerous to know too much about who’s reading our work. We like to tune them out—we write for ourselves, or each other. Knowing our audience is beneath us. Car salesmen know their audience. Political pollsters know their audience. The idea is that you can please that audience and give them what they expect, the way you might feed your dog the same two cups of kibble every morning.
I’d like to suggest that we consider opening the door to knowing our audience. Not to please them, but to be reinspired by them. We are all looking for some faith in the power of the written word. Maybe we should stop listening to each other and listen to them, those people out there. We might just find that they are strange and wondrous creatures. They are not “the mass market.” They are individuals. Each one of them is aching to be heard, and they will feel heard when they see their silent parts revealed in the pages of literature.