Storytelling and narratives
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The Terror of the Invisible Reader

Google Reader. Facebook. Gmail. Work Email. Other Work Email. Tweet, tweet, twitter. Facebook. Google Reader. Gmail-Gchat-Twitter. Work Email. Other Work Email. 


Leo Babuata asks What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?”


Maya Angelou claims that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 


There is no amount of tweeting, facebooking, emailing or Gchatting that can block a story that wants to be told and words that want to be put on paper. Turning the distractions off certainly helps — but it is neither Twitter nor my .org email address that is to blame for shortcomings in writing. Rather, the obstacle to my writing is often… me. 


My years in New England taught me to appreciate maple syrup, fall foliage, and privacy. Especially privacy. Erect a wall between the public and the private and protect the latter like a newborn kitten. This made me a more guarded, cautious, almost cynical writer. My implied reader was a potential employer who is trying to deduce from my writing whether I will work past 5 PM. Other implied readers included current girlfriends of ex-boyfriends (you would be surprised what a loyal readership they make…), sixth cousins fourteen times removed, and the Teaching Assistant who had to grade a response paper of mine that was shorter than one of my blog posts.


This semi-lunatic imagination of the invisible reader led to writing that was hardly disagreeable. It was accurate, it was grammatically correct — and it was dull. 


My privacy wall began to crumble on my second day of working at a clinic for women at Paicho Internally Displaced Persons Camp in northern Uganda. Surrounded by posters singing the praises of mosquito nets and the dangers of typhoid fever, I thought about maternal and infant mortality, childbirth, birth control, and the spread of disease. The women in the waiting room, however, were curious about a different matter: “Do you have a boyfriend/husband/lover? Is he good at making the sex?” 


I knew that “I would prefer not to disclose” would not be an acceptable answer.


There was no room for not disclosing in Colombia either. Conflict management workshops about “John Doe’s” fell on deaf ears; these women — survivors of conflict, ex-combatants, and victims of war — wanted to hear about my conflicts, my life, my fights. And so I had to learn to tell the story.


As the compartments of my life became more fluid and walls softened and lowered, I began to do away with my attachment to privacy in writing as well. Yet, to this day, I still worry about the unknown reader. What do you want to read? Why are you here? Am I professional/likeable/engaging/formal/informal enough? The more I ask myself these questions, the more I stare at a blank page.


And then I imagine the faces of loved ones. The benevolent readers. The ones who are curious and prepared to smile, nod their heads along with every line, or empathize. Sometimes I have a particular reader in mind and I write an article or a blog post as though it were an email to him or her. Other times, I imagine a sympathetic community of unknown readers. It is their imagined kindness that helps me overcome the privacy concerns that punctuate my writing. In the end, there is only one thing I can do to, as Leo Babuata would want me, “contribute to my writing.” And that is, simply, to write.


  1. Karen, you are the kindest benevolent reader my imagination could have yielded. I am thrilled that our paths have crossed and look forward to more of our shared reflections. Until then, I am indebted to your words and your kindness.

  2. Roxanne, your blog and your writing, and the sacred work that undergirds it, is stunning. I’m so glad you came to see my reverb10 post yesterday, because it brought me you.

    I offer myself as a previously unknown reader who is not just benevolent, a shade above neutral, as if barely inclined to smile… but hungrily, even greedily grateful for your words, your beauty, your truth.

    We never know, out in the world, who is yearning for what we have, that we ourselves may not think much of. But if we take those terrifyingly difficult and courageous steps we find them, answering hunger to hunger, need to need, love to love. No longer unknown, but kindred.

    Why am I here, Roxanne? Why will I thirstily follow you throughout reverb10 and beyond? Because you are kin. And we are all alone, except for the moments when kin reaches to kin, hand reaches to hand, and we can work together in this sacred world.

  3. Shannon, thank you for your kind note — and for your sweet comments around the site. You are, in all senses, my imagined “benevolent reader.” I am grateful you stopped by and am very much looking forward to reading your words.

  4. Powerful. Your life and your experiences are amazing. I look forward to exploring more on your site. You have some serious talent (jealous). Best, S

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