Short Reading Lessons in Writing: “The Conductor”

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.  That staff member is me.

I’m learning a lot about how readers read.

____

The story discussed this month was Aleksander Hemon’s “The Conductor,” from his collection Love and Obstacles (2009).

“The Conductor” is narrated by a young Bosnian man who fancies himself a poet of great talent and emotional depth, despite the inability of others to recognize this.  One day, he meets the country’s most famous poet—a dissolute older man who sits outside a tavern and drinks and tells stories—and writes poetry of beautiful brokenness.  The narrator doesn’t think much of the older poet or his work, but is accepted, more or less, into the poet’s circle of cronies, but is introduced by the older man as an orchestral conductor, instead of a writer, something that annoys the narrator to no end.   Over time, the young narrator eventually loses his home, his country, and his illusions about his own talents.  He becomes successful in his own way, translating the older poet’s work into English and eventually writing his own short stories.  Many years later, he meets the older poet one last time, at a writer’s workshop, and discovers that though he once judged the great poet an ugly joke, he can now recognize the beauty in the elderly, broken man.

Essentially, for me, this is a writer’s story.  It takes the reader through arrogance and anxious ego, the success, the guilt, the discomfort and the growth.  I appreciated this story, even when it made me cringe with self-recognition.

But I wasn’t sure how the discussion was going to go.  Especially after watching almost every single member come in, sit down and ask, “Can anyone tell me what this story was about?” 

 I figured we’d end up shrugging at each other for the fifteen minutes it would take to eat all the mini-cupcakes and complain about my coffee and call it a day.

Instead, it was the best discussion we’ve ever had.

Here’s what I learned this month:

Readers have trouble separating the author from the narrator, but that’s not always wrong.

This story does have strong parallels with the author’s life.  Both Mr. Hemon and the young narrator are from Sarajevo, they both were in America when Bosnia was invaded and were unable to return home.  They settled in the States and established successful writing careers and many of their stories involve Bosnia.

It’s no wonder that many of us became confused about which one was being discussed  We finally decided to call Mr. Hemon “The Author” while the narrator was called “The Conductor”—and some of us still had problems. 

I freely admit that I had a hard time separating them, too.  One reader in particular blew me away—she said it was fascinating that while The Conductor couldn’t write decent poetry, The Author, who had written the gorgeous lines for the older poet, was a fantastic poet.

My first reaction was that of course The Author hadn’t written the poems.  The old guy had.

Whoops.

This led to a side discussion about how much of fiction is actually autobiographical.  According to my group, a lot of fiction—maybe all of it— is embellished autobiography or wish fulfillment, even when it’s science fiction, which one lady described as “soap operas in tin foil.”* 

I asked whether Stephen King wrote autobiographies, and a few agreed that, at the very basic core of the story, he did, which is why his human beings, most of them, were so sympathetic—or so easy to hate.

And maybe writing what you know is actually that fundamental.  We all know—or most of us do—what it is to be human.  And good communication between a writer and a reader hinges on that.

Readers, generally speaking, sympathize with writers.

One or two of our members disliked this story because the old poet was so arrogant and mean to the young wannabe narrator.  They thought he should have encouraged him, or given him constructive criticism.  Some felt that the older poet did the young man a favor in the long run, because his true talent was short stories—though they agreed there was nothing in the story to suggestion the older poet knew this at all, or cared.

Most sympathized with the narrator later on, when he felt like a fraud, read only because he’d become the “Bosnian poster child.”  The Conductor was waiting for someone to come up to him and tell him he was a fraud for earning a living as a writer.  I told them that many authors seem to feel that way, and a few nodded, saying how difficult it must be for artists to put themselves out there, time after time, and not know if their work will be accepted.

All of them knew how hard it was to be published unless you were a brand name.

Readers influence readers.

At the beginning of the meeting, all but two readers were confused about this story.  Those two readers told us what they thought the story meant.  Others chimed in, agreeing, disagreeing, or asking for clarification.  Paragraphs were read aloud and favorite lines were shared.

At the end, when I usually gather up the previous story for recycling, only three people handed in “The Conductor.”  The rest wanted to read it again. 

As one said, “The story they read sounds pretty good.  I think I’ll give it another try.”

And this is why reading groups are great and good things.

___

*I immediately put science fiction on my list for next year’s stories.  I’ll show ’em—or not.

13 thoughts on “Short Reading Lessons in Writing: “The Conductor”

  1. this is good stuff here and some things i vaguely thought of as true but only with my own reading practice (“readers have trouble separating the author from the narrator”)

    very cool job-function for a soon to be bestselling author.

    • There’s a bit in John Irving’s Widow for One Year where one of the MCs is complaining that everyone thinks her books are autobiographical and they’re not . . . except later she finds out that they are, really, more than she ever would ahve thought.

      And ha! From your keyboard to a fabulous agent’s ears!

  2. There was an awesome SF short story I read in high school and have been trying to find since. The basis is that the ‘cure’ for old age is found in dandelions. I’ll tell you more about it later but I would love to read it again,,,

    • I hope the cure is blowing fluff all over the place! because I still totally do that! 🙂

      Let me know when you find it—I’ll add it to my list.

  3. Sarah,
    These are some of my favorite posts. They are so lucky to have you moderate, if you will. To have a writer, a reader, adding things that they may not have thought of, and to have their opinions, the inside scoop to the reader’s brain right there, well, once again thank you for being our spy.
    In a quirk of kismet, I just cracked open Love & Obstacles today on the train ride home, although I may be putting it back. After finishing A Gate at the Stairs, I’m in the mood for another novel.
    Then I read this post, and now I’m torn. So many books, so little time.

  4. I love that you get to do this as part of your job. Sounds like there was a very interesting discussion and I do remember reading somewhere that all first novels are semi-autobiographical.

    Oh and, “soap operas in tin foil” is hilarious but strangely apt.

    • The tin foil woman is a hoot — for the past few months, she’s been mumbling whenever I’ve said something and refused to share. I thought she didn’t like me, so I sat next to her yesterday to either curb the distraction or find out exactly what I was doing wrong.

      Turns out she was making these marvelous little snarky comments about the stories, and didn’t think her opinions were appropriate. I told her they were completely appropriate and I think she was pleased. She still won’t venture too many—but the group will fix that!

  5. I agree with the others. This is some wonderful stuff. I know you’ve already written your library WIP but perhaps there’s a murder in a book club plot that might interest you. It seems like you’ve already got your characters.

    • i have characters in abundance! 🙂

      But I’ll have to invent a murder victim — I love all my ladies (and one gentleman). Even the one who tells me that I make awful coffee while she drinks three cups.

  6. No wonder you have such a good eye when reading and such a deft hand when writing–you’re practically bowled over with excellent reading, characters and discussion every second Monday of each month. You’re a sly one, Sarah W. 🙂

    I don’t know why, but this story reminds me of something I read by Milan Kundera–excellent fellow. I think it was in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is one of my favorite books ever. The sentiment of this story seems very similar to one of the tales from that book. Highly recommended, but I suppose I say that about nearly every book…

    Either way, great post!

    • Well, it wasn’t exactly my original idea—I was drafted—but I’m enjoying myself, now.

      All I can remember about the Unbearable Lightness of Being is a gorgeous cover and that the male MC had affairs and forgot to wash his hair, so his wife could smell the other women when he kissed her. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, I just read it nearly mumble-mumble years ago and my memory’s shot. Guess I’ll add it to my Lisa Recommends list — wow, that thing’s getting long! 🙂

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