Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Audience of One

One of the bits of writing advice I have heard over and over, and at which I chafe like crazy, is that you should write for you, not for anyone else. That is, don't write with an idea of the audience in mind, or with an idea of selling the piece in mind, or whatever. Write for yoooou, not for the outside world. I have trouble with this for so many reasons. At the moment I'll just say that on the one hand, there's art, and on the other hand, there's commerce. People who want to be career authors have to find a way to balance between the two; yet this advice falls so squarely in the hand of art.

Let it never be said that Warhol didn't understand art/commerce

But yesterday...man. I started to believe for the first time that there's something to that advice, and not just that it can be taken if it's qualified with, like, "until you learn what your voice is like," or "when you have a serious writing toolbox," or "once you have markets interested in your work anyway."

I managed to write for a few hours yesterday (yes, yes, thank you, thank you, I appreciate your applause, no need to throw your panties at me), and at first I worked on a dreadful story that's had me stalled for months. I looked at the pages I'd emitted so far and decided to just start over in the middle of the story, and so I wrote a few thousand words. They seemed okay. Ultimately I got through the climax and wrote a brief plan for what I'll do next. I'm coming around a little bit to the idea that this story might be all right, but I'm also fine with the idea that it's just practice and will end up trunked.

I was tired, but didn't feel done, and I still had a couple of hours to go before I could really feel good about quitting, so I turned to my secret project. This is a book of short stories that I am planning to write only for me, because I don't think anyone but me will want it or care about it. When I came up with the idea, I tried to reject it as a project, because see the prior sentence. But it wouldn't let me alone, so I accepted both that I had to write it and that it might not ever find an audience outside of my notebook. In working on the project, I hope to feel a lot freer to try weird shit and get some practice with techniques like repetition and lyricism, which I admire but don't really know how to do.


I'd kind of burped up a single page of the first story in the middle of the night last month, and when I looked at it yesterday I was pretty pleased, so I thought, hell, why not, and got going on the second page. And then there was a third, and a fourth. And then I was done drafting the first story (of twelve).

I think I'll flesh it out a lot (like a LOT, like maybe this will be 1/4 of its eventual length) in the future, but maybe I won't, maybe it'll stay like this, and that'll be fine. And it felt better than much of what I've written in the past two years, coming out. It felt better than any of the exercises I've done for classes, better than pretty much all of the 8,000-word hot springs story, better than most of the 7,000-word journalist story, and better than the grueling revisions on the 4,000-word bread story. Better than the eh revisions on Highbinder. And it was completely different than any of those things - to its audience of one (me), it felt fresher and newer and much more beautiful.

Plus, I wasn't doing this thing, making it more yours and less mine. I was writing it in my own private language, for my own understanding. It was like poetry. I write terrible poetry, because I don't know a damn thing about how to write poetry, and generally I'm writing to express something rather than to create something. I have gathered that in writing poetry you have to make the language as beautiful and as dense as possible, but I don't have a toolbox for doing that and thence creating an object of art rather than creating shoddy, adolescent bullshit. In writing on the secret project yesterday, I threw out my toolbox and let the language lead me, which is what I do when I write my terrible poetry. It was the most instinctual writing I've done in a long time, and it felt amazing, and yet what I came out with looked pretty darn good to me.

So I started to wonder, once I was done with this draft of whatever this thing is, chapter, story, thing, whether it was going to be worthwhile to an audience, too, or whether it was still going to be just for me. (It honestly does not matter to me; it was sheer curiosity.) If it's good work, and it's work that's worthwhile to an audience, then the advice I've squirmed under for so long is absolutely correct, and the best way to write is to write without a thought to the audience. Because then I'll feel good while writing and I'll create something fine.

Aargh. This shit is confusing. Why couldn't I be a patent attorney?


Bret Hays said...

Bad poetry can be good lyrics (e.g. The Doors).

I was taught that "if you aren't preaching to yourself, you aren't preaching," and I have found this to be true. It's hard to give the same intensity to words that do nothing for you but will supposedly satisfy a hypothetical audience desire. And chances are, there are a lot of people who find the same things compelling that you do, since, as we learned from Fight Club, we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes.

On the other hand, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie kept writing Holmes and Poirot stories after they grew to loathe the characters because the money was too good to pass up.

Katharine Coldiron said...

But if you were preaching JUST for yourself, why write a sermon? Why not just sit at home and pray out loud? If I'm writing JUST for myself, why shouldn't I just keep a journal? Why should I bother to build a coherent story?

To me it feels like the difference between expression and creation. I write journal entries and poetry to express myself. I write blog posts and fiction and essays to create blog posts and fiction and essays, objects that are crafted in such a way as to appeal to others as well as to me. (I have only rarely written work that is solely projected and not at all for me, and it sucked. I imagine a sermon created that way would also suck, which I think was your point in the first place(?).)

Your final OTOH is deep in the palm of commerce, which, come to think of it, I may have mixed in to this discussion incorrectly. Maybe I was trying to work out art vs. audience instead.

Thanks, that was a fruitful comment.

Anonymous said...

Could there be any analogy between mentally designing the perfect armchair for you, and actually building one to sit in?

There's that point of the creative process where something isn't just dreamed but done - 'even' if it's just for you.

And there's a beauty in something built for a specific purpose, even if it would only fit one person, which is different from an object smoothed to an absolute generic standard. Not just the beauty of it fitting you, but an objective element to it.

And I should be thinking about Goldilocks here, but my mind is actually going to prosthetics for some reason.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Well, I think that's a pretty perfect analogy, actually. It helps a lot. It's how I treat my cross-stitching, which is often not a useful hobby in terms of gifts for others, but which is satisfying in itself for creating pretty objects.

Thank you, for the hundredth or thousandth time at least.

Bret Hays said...

You're right about my point with the sermon quote. Like your insightful distinction between expression and creation, a sermon delivered with solely to express myself would be a rant. I absolutely do consider what the congregation needs and wants to hear but there needs to be something in it that appeals to me, or challenges me. But maybe that's a bad example because I have a built-in audience and some knowledge of their needs and wants, whereas you are trying to attract an audience with each new writing.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I don't think it's a bad example. Actually, I think what you do and what I do aren't very far apart. Writers who don't write stuff that they would also want to read are copywriters or ghostwriters, neither of which I can do, and ministers who don't write sermons that are also for themselves are...televangelists, I guess.