When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was a very involved enterprise. We went to a total of three places. My favorite was stop number two, my great aunt's house, where our very Italian family would eat a ginormous spread of pasta and then gather in the living room to open gifts and yell at each other across the room.
After that, we'd go to my grandpa's house to visit, eat pizelles and cookies, and watch television. But before we got to those two enjoyable and festive events, we first had to go to my grandma's house. To say that my dad's mom was eccentric is a bit of an understatement and I could easily derail this post by delving into her various idiosyncrasies. For now, let's just talk about one of them: her total lack of talent for picking out good gifts. We're not sure where she acquired most of the multitude of items that she wrapped up and gave to us. Mostly, it seemed like they were picked out by someone high on drugs who decided to have a Goodwill shopping spree—a random assemblage of objects that had no association with the gift recipient whatsoever.
(Just FYI, this is not a slam on Goodwill. I shop there a lot and it is truly a magical place)
Getting gifts from Grandma was easier when I was a kid. Kids are, for the most part, pretty easy to shop for. She could give me any stuffed animal or toy and I could use my imagination superpowers to turn it into something awesome.
But then I grew up. My grandma's most memorable gifting disaster happened the Christmas of my junior year of high school. We made the forty five minute hike to her house, already dreading what fresh brand of holiday hell lay under her tree.
After a relatively tasteless and unmemorable lunch, we took our places around the tree. Grandma passed out the gifts. With trepidation, I unwrapped my package. Inside was something that looked kind of like this:
At first I thought maybe it was a cool vintage top. Then I unfolded the thing and realized it was made for probably a ten year old.
"Gee Grandma," I said, trying my best to be polite. "Thanks...this is great." My mom, unable to contain herself, burst out laughing and left the room.
My grandma gave me one of her notorious suffocating hugs and exclaimed, "Oh HOOONEYYY!!!! I'm so glad you like it!"
I remember a lot of things around the holidays about what Christmas was like when I was a kid. But one of the more intellectual things I ponder is exactly what my grandma's motivation for choosing those gifts was.
Was she seriously delusional enough to think that a 17 year old girl was going to be able to fit into a jumper a child wore in the '70s, or that I'd like it even if I could? Or...was she just trying to take the easy way out of Christmas shopping for her own benefit?
I'll never truly know the answer...but if there's one thing I've learned from that experience, it's this: Gift-giving is not about you. Maybe that seems obvious. Hopefully, most of us love picking out the perfect gift and anxiously awaiting the moment when the person will open it. It's one of the best parts of the season. But...is it just as obvious when we're talking about our writing? Last week at my webinar Block-Busting Revision Strategies, we discussed how the most important way to alleviate any anxiety about writing is to remember that it isn't about you. You aren't creating for yourself. Yes, you might love the act of creating, and you should. It is a gift you've been given and the more you cultivate it and grow in your craft, the more you should enjoy it.
But in many cases, the process isn't complete until you share it with an audience—and that audience is who you are primarily writing for. I say "in many cases" because there are of course times when we write purely for ourselves. I am not going to be publishing my prayer journal on the internet any time soon, and you probably have some form of equally cathartic writing that isn't for public consumption. But if you're writing a novel or a memoir that you ultimately do want people to read, you need to think about who will be reading it. The more that you think about your project as being "for" a particular reader, the more you'll be able to craft it to meet that reader's particular needs. You aren't just telling a story. You are meeting a very real emotional and creative need.
Have you ever read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie and felt that the author created it specifically for you, to meet you in a very particular moment in your life? I've had a LOT of experiences like that, but the one that immediately comes to mind is Beauty and the Beast. I was seven when my parents took me to see it for my birthday. I was kind of a weird kid—even then, I was obsessed with books and storytelling, to the point where I walked around at recess telling stories to myself or even reading while walking. I wasn't very popular. I got teased a lot. At the same time, though, I knew my love for stories wasn't something I could just give up so people would like me. I didn't know how to do that. So I just kept doing my thing, trying not to let people bug me. Then, at the movie theater watching Beauty and the Beast, I saw a pretty, quirky girl walking through the streets of her quaint small town, totally engrossed in a book, while all around her, people are singing about how weird she is. I remember sitting in the theater crying because I was so happy. There was a character—a Disney princess, nonetheless!—who knew how I felt.
Of course, that was my thought process as a seven year old. I now know that behind Belle was a writer—Disney and Broadway legend Howard Ashman—who indeed did know what it was like to be an outsider. I wonder if he knew when he crafted the now iconic opening of that movie that he was about to change the life of a bookish seven year old in Ohio, making her feel proud of her gifts and a lot less alone.
On some level, he had to have thought about how his story would impact children on the fringes of their own social spheres, and girls in particular.
Side note: There is a wonderful documentary on Disney+ called Howard that delves into the details of Ashman's life. If you are a Disney and theatre aficionado, it's a must see.
My point is this: have you thought at all about who you're writing for...who the recipient of your gift will be? We both know that stories change lives. Have you considered whose life you might change with a story that is relatable and precisely what they need? If you're writing a book purely to satisfy your own impulses and interests, the only person you're giving a gift to is yourself. I'm not saying that your reader will experience a disaster on the level of me receiving a corduroy jumper designed for a fourth grader in 1972. But you'll be a lot closer to making an impact if you think about how your story can be a gift to someone else. Want to know how to get started with knowing your reader? I've got a couple tools to help. First, grab a copy of my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook. It's full of activities, writing prompts, worksheets, and more to help you brainstorm and iron out the details of your book, including the Ideal Reader Avatar, which will help you figure out just who might end up reading your book. Second, I want to meet up and talk to you about your project though a Virtual Meetup on Zoom. This 30 minute meeting on Zoom is totally complimentary, a chance for you to share what you're writing and get some answers for your hangups. No strings attached—just a chance to talk craft and drink some coffee.
Just click here to get on my calendar and let's chat!