Feedback, achievements and story telling have much in common as Tanya J Peterson, author of Leave of Absence, explains.
Human existence and advancement owe much to a few highly important achievements. As we’ve mastered fire, taught ourselves how to make and use specialized tools, and invented efficient means of transportation, we’ve made astonishing progress as a species. Perhaps I’m biased, but there is another significant human achievement that stands out among the intellectual triumphs of Homo Sapiens Sapiens: the ability to communicate complex ideas.
Even way back in the Stone Age, when we sought shelter where we could, when our goal was merely to survive, we needed more. We needed a way to learn from each other, we needed emotional connection with each other, and we needed entertainment, an escape from the harsh conditions that perpetually threatened our survival. We started talking around the fireside, and storytelling became an integral part of humanity.
The storytelling was far from random. Even back in the day, as we hunted and gathered and sheltered in caves or other natural structures, stories weren’t always for entertaining general audiences. Frequently, the stories were intentional and the storytellers had target audiences. A leader reliving an intense hunt wouldn’t call the women and children to his side. Those stories were not only entertaining and self-serving, they were educational. They were told to the other hunters. Healers had their own stories and audiences, and so on and so forth. Intentional stories told to intentional audiences—this was natural even to our predecessors from the Stone Age.
In our more modern era, writers typically seek to do the same. For whom do we write? The answer is not (or should not be) for ourselves. Like the prehistoric men and women, we tell stories for a specific audience. I wrote the novel Leave of Absence in order to help increase understanding of schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, and loss. When people understand what these illnesses are really like and how they really impact people, my hope is that empathy and compassion for people experiencing these illnesses will increase as well. So I wrote Leave of Absence for people who are curious about mental illness (maybe they read news reports equating mental illness to violence, or they saw a movie and wonder if schizophrenia is really like it was portrayed—it probably isn’t). Leave of Absence is also designed to stimulate discussion among students in psychology or counseling classes. Because 25% of the population experiences a mental illness at any point in their lifetime, there are a lot of people who experience mental illness themselves or who know someone struggling with mental illness. Leave of Absence is for them, too, as it is for others who like character-driven stories with characters they can become attached to.
I most definitely had a target audience in mind when writing this novel. Teenage boys were not among that intended audience, especially not teenage boys who are avid sci-fi and fantasy readers. So when one such adolescent chose to read Leave of Absence, I was quite nervous. This boy knows me, and he picked it up because it was “cool” that he knew the author. I joked with him about target audiences and let him off the hook. To my surprise, and anxiety, he still wanted to read it. A few days after he began reading my novel, he approached me about it. He was “really into it,” he said. He stated that he’s fascinated by the portrayal of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia because he has heard of it but didn’t really know what it was. He told me that he likes that Leave of Absence reaches beyond a textbook in that it shows (rather than tells) the facts and makes the people real. Continuing the pattern of unexpected reactions, he’s astonishingly connected to the main female character even more so than the main male character.
This, I think, serves as an important reminder. We’ve come far as a species. Yet we still have far to go: much to learn, much to understand, much to accept. It’s natural for us to be entertained and to learn through stories; after all, it’s what we’ve always done. I actively invite my target audience to join me around my campfire. I have a lot of space there, though, and when others want to hear my stories, they are welcome. It leads to rich discussion and a deeper exchanges of ideas.
I closely gauge how my target audience responds to my writing. Their reviews, comments, and interactions are very important to me as I sally forth as a novelist. Listening to feedback from someone outside of my audience is just as important. The comment from the high school boy that I’m making something real to him is one of the highest complements this storyteller could ever receive.
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