Pocaloca’s post got me pondering some things which I have been musing on lately myself. Recently, in a fit of dissertation-revision-overload, I went to the grocery store and splurged on a paperback Romance novel. You know, one of those books with the shirtless guy on the cover that are almost embarrassing to be seen with, but are totally a guilty pleasure when your brain cannot take another learned excursion into sixteenth-century banking practices or dowry contracts. With the expectation of really bad writing, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and ludicrously unbelievable plotlines, I settled in to detox my brain for an hour or so on total fluff.
I was totally surprised. It’s not that the book itself isn’t absurd. In many ways, it follows the formula of the genre to a T. There is, indeed, a shirtless guy on the cover. The heroine is suitably feisty and simultaneously in need of rescue from dark forces. The hero is sexy, intelligent, haunted by his past, and devastatingly charming. The soon-to-be couple have uncontrollable chemistry which begins with a series of absurd misunderstandings and a contest of wills. That is not what surprised me.
What did surprise me? The hero is a ninth-century time-traveling Irish warrior—and stay with me here—who spent several centuries in a dragon’s body, was rescued from his fate by a twelfth-century Scottish warrior-druid who used to be a panther, and the two now best friends have settled down to hunkily farm in a small Maine town and rescue other shape shifting time travelers all while falling in love with local women who are usually, but not always, single-mothers. The premise is absurd, the dialogue is mind-boggling, and periodically demonic wolves pop out of the woods to chase the protagonists, but, surprisingly, the book really is enjoyable. Yup. I said it. This book is good. Why is the book so good? It’s messing with my expectations. Moreover, I can tell the author is having a blast.
This made me start thinking about expectations. In particular, the expectations we have both as writers and readers and how they can lock us in so much that we neither enjoy reading nor writing. I see this fairly often and have been guilty of it myself. We write papers that we think our professors want to read. We write on topics we think will earn us the best grade. We write in a way that mimics what we have been told is good writing. This can limit us and deprive us of the pleasure in the pursuit of the unexpected. It can also hamper us from discovering that fresh point of view.
When I was looking for a dissertation topic, I almost made this mistake. My dissertation started out as a tame study of Renaissance women historians. That is, until I was reading one of these female historians—the Modense nun Lucia Pioppi—and ran across a small gem half-way through her chronicle. This gem was an account of IEDs—Improvised Exploding Devices—being sent to several members of one family—a fact which made me do a quadruple take when I was reading it just because I wasn’t expecting it. What the heck was an account of letter-bombs doing in a nun’s diary for God’s sake? They had letter-bombs in the sixteenth century? Who would be mad enough to do such a thing? Why would they do such a thing? My attempts to answer these very questions has led me to dissertation which is a million light-years away from what I anticipated. Had I clung to my original topic and discounted that small anecdote, I know I never would have had as much fun.
Which leads me to circle back to where I began my post. While we write for an audience and we write with our own expectations and our reader’s expectations in mind, we also need to write for ourselves. Be open to the unexpected. Don’t write what you think I (or your professors or anyone else) want to hear. Write what you need me to hear and challenge my (our) expectations. It’s a subtle distinction that can make an enormous difference in how much you derive from the writing process. I also promise it will be more fun for both you and your readers.