Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Who is your Ideal Reader? (05/15/06)

Featured writer: Jean Hegland

Contributors this month:
B. Lynn Goodwin
Bonnie Bruinsslot
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Ken Rodgers
Marlene Cullen
Mary Porter-Chase
Pat Olivier
Susan Bono

Jean Hegland

My Ideal Reader is anyone who reads and appreciates (i.e., likes and "gets") what I write!

In one ironic way, I suppose that means that the less someone who appreciates my work might be considered likely to appreciate it, the more "ideal" he or she is. For example, I'm always delighted when fundamentalist Christians tell me they loved Into the Forest, or when very young men are moved by Windfalls.

But another kind of ideal reader is someone whose experiences are close to those of one of my characters. I'm always gratified (and relieved) when people who know more about what I'm writing about than I do (hunters, herbalists, photographers, teenaged mothers, midwives, etc.) tell me I got things right. I once talked to a remarkable young woman who had not only been homeless for a while, but who had had to deal with an unwanted pregnancy under very challenging circumstances, and it meant a great deal to me to learn how deeply Windfalls had resonated with her.

On yet another hand, if "ideal reader" means the reader has a writer has in mind while she's writing—the person to whom she's addressing her words—I suppose I would have to say that my characters are my ideal readers. The more I get to know and care for my characters during the five year stint that writing a novel seems to be for me, the more urgent it becomes for me to tell their story well. My ideal readers are the people for whom I'm speaking, and I would like to think that each of my characters could read what I'd written and feel as if he or she had been known—and loved—from the inside out.

Jean Hegland is a Healdsburg mother of three who manages to write books such as The Life Within: A Celebration of a Pregnancy, Into the Forest, and Windfalls while she homeschools her kids and teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College.

B. Lynn Goodwin

I never know what impact my words might have, or who might identify with one of my characters. If someone grabs a new idea, thought, or insight from my writing, I've found an ideal reader.

Lately I've been writing about teachers at the end of their careers. If even a brief moment rings true to a teacher, student, or anyone connected with education, I've found another ideal reader.

I also write author interviews and book reviews for WriterAdvice, If a reader picks up on a technique or buys a book I have written about, then I've connected with another ideal reader.

If a reader responds to what I have written, I've completed a circuit with an ideal reader.

Managing Editor of WriterAdvice,
Danville Weekly Freelance Reporter
Small Press Review (Dustbooks) Reviewer
CWC (California Writers Club) Columnist

Bonnie Bruinsslot

This is the time to put the shoe, not on the other foot, but on the ears, to hear the echo of those parcel of words that tell a writer what captures a reader, rather than writing for himself:

The ideal reader is one who can look through the words, phrases, metaphors, similes, and commas to find the iridescent glow on the other side. The reader resonates with the piece, takes the words, phrases, metaphors, similes and commas, and lifts them off the page with his fingers. He tastes them, finding which ones he'd like to make a part of himself. After finding the ones for him, he digests them, sour or sweet, and feels full and satisfied.

With a sigh and hum, he places the reading on the coffee table and moseys back into his life—changed. The colors are brighter in his garden. His thoughts of family are warm as toast

Bonnie Bruinsslot lives and writes in Santa Rosa, CA.

Christine Falcone

My ideal reader would be someone who likes to buy and read a lot of books. Her shelves would be stocked with the classics and also the best fiction available today. She would be someone who just LOVED my writing, who could not get enough of it. She would be like four bleachers filled with cheerleaders, someone who talked about my work over coffee or lunch with her best friends—also well-read bibliophiles. Like the owner of a beloved but ailing dog, she wouldn't be able to put me down. She'd call the bookstores asking if my latest novel was available yet, would stay up late when she had to go to work early the next day just to finish one of my chapters. She would actually break dates with friends to stay in on a rainy night and take me in the tub with her while she soaked in rose-scented bath salts. She'd be intelligent and kind, someone with a big heart who would never bad talk my writing in public, even if she saw room for improvement, which she wouldn't because she'd love everything I'd ever written.

My ideal reader would pay a small fortune to buy my old journals and notebooks at auction. She'd gladly go into debt in order to afford a once-in-a-lifetime meet-and-eat-with-your-favorite-author kind of lunch. She'd lavish me with praise, would love quoting favorite passages and would even tear up when talking about the grief of one of her most beloved protagonists. She would be someone who intimately understood all the major characters I'd created, would ask when their birthdays were and wonder about their personal lives outside the book, explaining with a laugh that she's only joking, but that they're just that real to her. She'd be someone who doesn't fall in love easily but who, when she does, is devoted and true.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She recently completed her first novel entitled, This Is What I Know.

Claudia Larson

Hmmm, my Ideal Reader. This reminds me of the list-making we
past-our-twenties-women are encouraged to make in order to assure that we
don't settle for less than the ideal husband. I've made that list. More
than once. No husband yet has appeared. For some reason, listing the
traits of the Ideal Reader seems more difficult than divining a life
partner. There are some shared components, however.

The Ideal Reader and the Ideal Husband share a curiosity about me, a
desire to dive into my world and learn my language. Once swimming in my
world-pool, both Reader and Husband would be charmed by new perspectives
that tickle humor and compassion equally. They would be satisfied by my
earthy ethereality and be fascinated with the paths that draw them closer
to their own humanity or rocket them into the sacred geometry of their
souls. They would lick their lips with relish, soften their bellies in
response, lengthen the stride of their legs and widen the embrace of their
arms, all upon getting to know me.

And they would sigh, snort a chuckling breath, acknowledging that life is
a mystery, ripe for exploration.

Claudia Larson has traded the expression of singing on stage to writing
AND singing with her granddaughters. She lives in Sonoma County, CA.

The relevant question for me is: Do I write for any reader besides the one that lives inside my head?

  by Ken Rodgers

I have three writing partners. The first is my wife, Betty, who usually sees everything I write. She acts mostly as a copy editor, and although she critiques content and clarity, I never have to worry about how she feels emotionally as regards my work because she is my supporter, right or wrong. I also have a fiction partner who will always tell me if something stinks and she always tells me that at least part of everything I write stinks. I also have a poetry partner, but our relationship isn't a particularly critical one.

As for the general reading public, I long ago learned that what I write will set some off, and set some on, and I'm never sure where the twain will intersect. Editors of publications fall within the purview of the general public, not because they aren't more perspicacious than the general reading public, but because it's also impossible for me to gauge their reactions to any piece.

That leaves me with me. Me as reader and me as critic, me as the reader that lives inside my mind and points out all my little follies and constantly tells me I should be out at HP making printers instead of trying to write. We all have that guy living inside us. But he is not a simple critter. He is complicated and sometimes, I think, a little schizophrenic, because even though he bashes what I write he also tells me when I am on to something, when I am writing something that is good, whether experimental or mainstream, alarming or pacifying. He lights a little fire at the base of my gut and fans it according to my level of success.

I am my worst reader and my ideal reader—and that fits with the way the world works, no? The ideal and the worst—don't they come together in packages?

Ken Rodgers lives and writes and teaches in Boise, Idaho. After fifty-nine years he is still in need of pacification. Visit him at

Marlene Cullen

My ideal reader is one who listens well and who cares about my written word. He or she doesn't have to agree with me, just be willing to listen. And, once in a while, a smile, a nod or an mm-hmmm as I read my work aloud.

My ideal reader is one who does not criticize nor judge. I love a reader who has the aha light bulb go off after they have read my work. Or perhaps my words might inspire the reader/listener to write something of their own, and perhaps through introspection realize something new.

My ideal reader is one who smiles after reading my work. Smiles and settles back in their chair with a sigh and a whole body relaxation as my words wash over them.

My ideal reader is one who feels content after reading my work, or who is inspired to write also and then excitedly jumps up and down, waving her or his hand, proclaiming, "Me next, me next! Hear my piece next."

Marlene Cullen writes and enjoys listening in Petaluma, CA.

Mary Porter-Chase

She gives my writing time, thought and feel. He goes to the depths of meaning with me and skims the surfaces with some of my poetic "ditties." They catch my humor even though it is so dry it disintegrates into nothing with others. They are people who make a point of sharing their appreciation with me personally. My ideal reader takes me seriously and expects my best in a variety of forms.

When my favorite readers are in an audience where I am to read, and I rise to my feet with a black notebook folded in my arm and walk slowly to the podium, they smile. These smiles are indicating anticipation of collecting fresh images, being soothed with rhythm and blues, and being left with important things to think about. When I look out at these fans, their faces reflect all of the feelings that they hear my words expressing. Occasionally a tear drop courses down their cheeks, other times chuckles gurgle from their lips, or pain prods into the lines around their eyes and mouths. They are telling faces offering back to me part of what I offer them.

From this amazing collection of sensitive readers emerge a few chosen ones that I admire and trust—ideal readers and critics. These are the ones that read my work in progress before it goes out in the world. I count on them to give me honest, intelligent and gentle feedback that helps as I edit and rewrite.

My favorite readers of all are those who possess all of the above and come back for more, whether it is buying a new book or listening to another reading. Their support never wavers.

Mary Porter-Chase is in Windsor, CA beginning the first week of marketing her new book—soon to be a bestseller!

Pat Olivier

Since I mostly operate under a haze of misplaced ambition (me, a writer?) my imagination went immediately to a finished product — my first published book. Thus my first thought on the subject was anybody who could afford my book, which assumes I have something worthwhile to say and enough of it to generate a book. On second thought, the purchase of my book doesn't guarantee me an ideal reader, whatever that is for me. Further thoughts on the subject, however, made clear I already have an ideal reader, a bunch of them. My writing group.

They are unflappable and fearless, these women, and bring rich and varied life experiences into play when they read my work and because of that, I am freed to write honestly. Nothing frightens them—been there, done that, or some variation. They also have a wonderful sense of humor, laughing in all the right places and sometimes where none was intended. But that is okay. The unintentional laughter tells me I need to clean up that sentence or paragraph. I feel quite fortunate to have this bunch of biased ideal readers. Biased in my favor, pulling for me, cheering my ragged efforts. Offering up helpful suggestions and books to read.

Their comments and criticisms are meted out with careful attention to my tender skin, nothing that would chafe or rub me raw. Encouragement is generously ladled out and I lap it right up. More, more, I silently yell.

In my group of ideal readers, my writing efforts are nurtured. This nourishment reaches a deep place that needs filling.

Pat Olivier, Sebastopol, CA

Susan Bono

I know it's ridiculous, but I still write hoping every reader in the world will love every word I put out there—I dream of being the first author in the history of literature to be universally appealing. This load of baloney, of course, is merely one of the many tricks I employ to keep myself from actually writing, and later, from attempting to publish. When I turn writing into an all or nothing proposition, nothing is the only obtainable option.

So I try to keep the baloney at bay and write for a specific audience. When I'm composing email or the increasingly rare letter, my ideal reader is the person I'm writing to. I imagine my friends or my Aunt Marge reading my words, absorbing their humor or drama. I attempt to anticipate their reactions to any number of delicate subjects and adjust my delivery accordingly. I've been misunderstood, of course, I'm sure of it, but I'm willing to risk being misinterpreted by these people, because they love me enough to forgive me.

I get fuzzy on the concept of audience when I write for the world at large. Brenda Ueland recommends that we write only for those who would applaud our every effort and shout hearty encouragements if writing were a race we were running. Of course, this is an excellent idea, but if I took Ueland's advice, my ideal reader would be my mother.

But there are so many topics I would rather not subject Mom to. She subscribes to the philosophy that nothing is really as bad as it seems, and she doesn't want to hear my opinions about certain members of our family. I know she loves me, would cheer me on no matter what, but if she were to read much of what I write, her enthusiasm would falter and her smile would be thin and forced. My mother, then, is not my ideal reader. I'm better off writing for some total stranger.

I guess my ideal reader ought to be a no-nonsense editor, either a middle-aged man or a 30-something woman who has nothing in common with me and who still believes she will never grow old, thick-waisted or dim-witted. Those are certainly the kinds of editors I want to impress, but when I try to write for these judges, my writing shrivels, withers and dies. I'd like one of these critics to hand me a prize, but they are not the people I dedicate my words to.

These days, I feel like I'm writing for my separated-at-birth twin—a now middle-aged woman who wears her respectability draped like a sweater over her shoulders to protect her from the chill. This twin and I have developed similar aversions to cooking and housework, but we remain determined to uphold these duties to our families. Like me, my ideal reader harbors nagging anxieties about her self-worth, but she's quick to laugh, and she values friendships and good books. When we were young, we both secretly yearned to be utterly unique and irreplaceable. As the years go by, we are learning to take comfort in the knowledge that while we're more ordinary than we'd hoped, we are not the only ones with these longings.

In fact, there are plenty of me's out there, indecisive women with faulty memories and frustrated desires and grief about growing old. Armies of me—legions—and more of us stepping off the cliffs of perimenopause every minute. We're losing our parents, our friends, our figures, and in some cases, our marriages. We read in order to hold onto our minds. When I write, I tell myself I am trying to reach out to the armies of me, that all the losses I must face can be borne as long as I know I'm not alone. The joys are easier to bear, too, when I know I'm not just talking to myself.

Susan Bono keeps reaching out in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Back to Searchlights & Signal Flares