The First Reader You Disappoint

Today is a good day. Today I got my first sub-4-star review from someone who was disappointed in Broken. When I got it I paused and felt the initial punch of sadness – They read it and walked away unhappy?! – and then intrigue – What did they see in the words that they didn’t like?

I’m pleased to say that this is a new experience for me after a year and a half (ish) of positive reviews across the board. It’s hard to complain about that, so I’m not going to. I’m also not writing this post to confront the reader, as per author’s etiquette. I side with the large group of writers who feel it is poor form to get into arguments with readers over differences of opinion. I have certainly disliked books that other people loved in the past (*ahem* Lord of the Rings – don’t hit me!). What I’m writing about here is the thing that I love about art in general – no single piece of art is viewed the same way by all people, and that is okay. I would argue that it’s the entire point.

The same story does not have exactly the same meaning to any two people, and as a character-driven author and reader, I see those differences of opinions through the relationships we have with characters (sure, we can get bogged down in plot points and technicalities, but I find those problems much less interesting). If we look at the well-dramatized TV show Mad Men, for instance, we can find a divide in fans between those who like Don Draper and those who find him beyond redemption. Draper is an adulterer, a liar, and a drinker. He is also someone who is tormented by what he’s done and memories of where he came from; he has sparkles of kindness that show up through the lying/cheating/drinking (i.e. his care for Anna), great charisma, and a brilliant mind for advertising. What a viewer sees in Don Draper depends so much on their own experiences – to one who has been cheated on, he may be the embodiment of deep hurts. To the child of an alcoholic, he may be a reminder of a father too infrequently present. At the same time, he could actually evoke sympathy in the same person, not just for the character, but for the real-life incarnation of his indiscretions.

The prism of characterization, molded by our own experiences.

My own experiences have come into play rather prominently with the latest book I opened up, the semi-autobiographical Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov. Mikhail is a classically acclaimed physician-writer, best known for his novel, The Master and the Margarita. In Country Doctor’s Notebook he describes his experiences as a new doctor in 1917 rural Russia. As I started reading the book I felt this overwhelming sense of kinship with a man now long dead; somehow, between the pages of an almost 100-year-old book, I met a friend. There are obvious differences between our experiences as young physicians – while Mikhail was stranded in snowy Russia with inadequate resources and no other physicians to advise him, I am working in a well-appointed hospital with robust support from my elders. Where he is expected to do everything from surgery to psychiatry, I am slightly more focused in my intern year.

Those obvious differences aside, in so many ways our experiences are not different at all (starting with the fact that we are both physicians who write, though he is obviously a more successful writer than I). I think every healer has felt that sudden doomsday sensation with the first patient you see as a qualified practitioner, knowing that you are the one with the answers now, or you’re supposed to be. I laughed when Mikhail wrote about concealing a textbook on the procedure he was about to perform on top of the patient’s chart, when not a week ago I was googling the steps to procedures and drugs I was about to initiate as I was walking into a room. His desperate thoughts on his first day ‘please don’t let this be a hernia,’ are not so different than my own ‘please don’t let this be a stroke.’ Through his work I came to understand that the insecurities of the young healer are a function of who we are, regardless of when we are – all of us through time have had the same fears, and that… is kind of awesome.

As the story went on Mikhail revealed the increasingly dark side of his early years as a doctor, when he became addicted to morphine. His description of the descent into addiction was surprisingly frank for someone of his time and profession; I could not help but admire his courage. Courage aside, there’s no way to defend practicing medicine while intoxicated; what he did was not right. It was bad.

I understood it, and think what you will of me, I still felt the same connection to him. What he did wasn’t what I would ever do, and still I found him sympathetic, for whatever reason that may be.

We look at these sorts of characters in their most broken times, and for us they are so many shards of glass – tilt them one way and we see something we want to see, tilt another way and we see quite the opposite. When you have a reaction to a character, what are you seeing? Are you seeing them for who they are, or are you seeing your friends, your family?

Do you see yourself?

We will not all agree on stories, characters, or values, but what we see in them is always a part of us in some way. I could never fault someone for that. Thank you for the reviews, no matter what they say.

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