Message in a Bottle

Everyone who writes has an imaginary friend.

There is an ideal reader in my imagination, a figure who finds even my shopping lists and notes in the margins of books interesting. I have not yet actually met anyone who fits this description, but I keep writing, just in case.

Rarely have I written something while in the presence of the person I was writing to. The only exceptions to this would be times I have sent a note or a text to the person sitting next to me, but these were done for one of two reasons: 1. We needed to be silent, or 2. I wanted to elicit an ironic smirk when we needed to be silent.

So everyone who writes has a figure, real or imagined, who is supposed to be the reader of the message. For me, this person has changed over time, and even changes from piece to piece.

In the 1990s, when I wrote for a weekly newspaper, I rarely learned which articles or columns were actually read.

I covered school sports, which has a couple of rules: Cram in the names of every participant on the field and even every benchsitter, without mentioning the bench. (Unless the bench was locally made and recently delivered, in which case it was a good idea to include the names of the lumberyard and the furniture maker along with a quote about its bench-y comfort from someone sitting on it.) When both schools are local, simultaneously downplay and up-play the final score. Describe good performances from both sides. Cram in a few more names: the coaches, the refs, some of those in attendance.

A compliment from a reader of one of those articles was a thank you from a parent purchasing an extra copy to send to the grandparents–if I ran into them at the grocery store while they were purchasing that extra copy.

I also had a humor column (guess its name) and I once wrote something controversial in it. Now, this was done out of an idiotic frustration that I felt from my perceived lack of feedback. “How do I know what people think?” I said to no one out loud, and so I put on my explorer costume and ventured forth without leaving my desk to find out. If I had said it out loud, my editor probably would have dissuaded me.

My column was on page 4, and on page 3 was a column written by an elderly man who had spent a lifetime in newspapers, local newspapers; his entire four-decade-long career had been spent in the same county we were covering. It is possible that he had written something about every single building in the county and more than a few open fields. Not one piece of mail had come into the newspaper office about my column, even when I had requested feedback from readers, but there was a letter every single week about the old man’s column. “He should retire already” or “May he never quit” were the only two themes, but one of these arrived every week!

(He passed away about 15 years ago and the newspaper, which I had by then left, continued to run his columns as a weekly “Best of …” tribute; I am certain the paper still received the “He should retire” and “May he never quit” letters every week.)

But I was the target of no such letters and I envied the old man his passionate readership. The one time that I wrote something controversial, controversy followed: Our music columnist used his weekly space to rebut my column and publicly declare that not only had he not ever read me but he was going to continue to not read me, which seemed a neat trick. He did not send a letter to the editor; instead he wasted his own column inches to disagree with me. I told him, in person, in my job as assistant editor, that we still needed his music review that week and we would run the complaint in the letters section, which needed a letter as we had received not even one that week. He insisted on using his space to not review music in that issue, though.

Times are different now, says everyone who has lived long enough to learn to talk, and this blog, which is almost a year old now, has readers who are also writers and who like to give feedback. “The Gad About Town” has a small readership, so far, but a feedback-y sort of readership, for which I am grateful. I do not need to generate controversy just to do so. I also do not need to cram in the names of a lumberyard and furniture store.

Everything we write is a message in a bottle, and I no longer attempt to steer the currents to shore for my messages.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 22 asks, “Many of us had imaginary friends as young children. If your imaginary friend grew up alongside you, what would his/her/its life be like today? (Didn’t have one? write about a non-imaginary friend you haven’t seen since childhood.)”

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  1. wscottling · October 22, 2014

    I’ve also heard of this “ideal reader” and you’re right, they are imaginary. ^_^ Although we still write to them, don’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ripplesnreflectiontimes · October 22, 2014

    Nice take on the prompt…. keep writing n increasing your feedbacky readership 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Leigh W. Smith · October 24, 2014

    Great post, Mark. I know that that’s the suggestion: to have a reader in mind as you’re writing, but I usually don’t picture the reception at all until I’m nearing the end of writing. (Sure, I have an internal editor or voice, but that’s just a thread of me.) I don’t know if it’s foolish, arrogant, or unprofessional (or all 3), but I tend to write what I think is good, so I am my initial audience. And I could be wrong, but I’m probably mostly reality and only partly imagined. 🙂
    Funny, but there’s a local man who writes a column, probably has for 30-40 years, maybe more, and, my goodness, it’s terrible. It’s kind of like a constant Facebook timeline. “I went such and such today and saw so-and-so and the deer are plentiful in this county and, oh yeah, Obama did this wrong, don’t take my guns and ammo, get out and vote [at least he says that], ad nauseam.” I’ll bet he does get his fanboys, though. I love your stories, Mark. If it’s any consolation, you have a dedicated reader here. 🙂 You have a high output, though, so I don’t always hit every single one.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Pingback: An Ideal Reader | The Gad About Town

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