Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Doing Prose, Audience-Free

I want to talk about audience today, but I'm not sure my ideas on it are completely settled. So come along with me on this jaunt; no guarantees I know what I'm talking about or won't change my mind.


A friend is in the process of figuring out how to write what she wants to write. She says that she needs her pieces to land, or to be received, for them to be whole, and her feelings have been echoed by other writers I know. I get it. There's a way in which a lot of my day-to-day seems imprecise and fuzzy until I talk it over with Matt. Writing is often the same way; until I loop Matt in on what I'm doing, and then ultimately give him the finished product, it feels like a secret that I don't want to keep.

I'm not sure I was very helpful when I gave my friend my $0.02 about this.
After eight years of taking my writing seriously, and thinking about audience and who would like it and the importance of putting my stuff into the world and etc., this year I just stopped caring about that and started doing it for me. And everything has changed.

That's not to say that I don't ever have audience in mind (especially when revising), but just that I'm finally more interested in what I think of the work as opposed to what someone else will think of it. Not being married to whether the work is suitable for others has made it SO much better. I was waaaaaay wrapped around Being A Writer and what that meant and whether I deserved it, and now I'm invested in the process of writing instead. The process of making something with which I am satisfied. And the process is what keeps making me better, instead of some magic key or combination that means I can write a perfect MFA story suitable for The New Yorker.

For me it took the bottom of despair about writing to hit this point (and, again, years of effort and carrying on when a lot of the world told me not to), and I really hope it doesn't take that for every writer. 
The thing is, it's not actually true that I don't care about audience at all. I do. I care about writing such that others can understand me, and about publishing, and about other people one day walking up and saying "Your book mattered to me." I just no longer care about those things so much that all my joints freeze up before (and while) I put words on the page. I no longer care such that I'm thinking my way around every street corner before I even put my characters in the stroller to go for a walk. And I no longer care enough about the potential end result of a piece that I'm willing to rethink my method or style or interpretation of storytelling in order to make my work more saleable, or palatable, or any other adjective that depends upon external reception.

I'm still open to feedback (for heaven's sake). If the story doesn't have internal logic, it needs revision. If I give it to Matt and Matt says "Huh?" then it probably needs revision. But I suspect - forgive me - that it's kind of like parenting. If you think every other second about how your kid's going to end up after you've sent them off into adulthood, you're going to lose your mind, right? Way too much pressure, too much fretting about a future that's so unwritten as to be irrelevant until the kid's a certain age. If instead you just parent them to the best of your ability, day-to-day, I imagine you'll do a better job. The act of parenting, today, matters a lot more to the kid, now and on the future therapist's couch, than a consistent push toward Yale or a good marriage or whatever.

Whether I'm wrong or not about actual parenting, the conclusion works for writing. In my opinion, for my type of writing, the act of sitting and doing prose matters more to the long-term avocation and concerns of a writer than the act of considering what will happen to that prose once it's done. I respect the need for an audience when writing in other genres, and the need for a reader for the sake of closure, but I have learned that to be satisfied with one's own work and, importantly, to reach higher when considering the next challenge, is a far more profitable enterprise than starting with "Who will want to read this?" and working backward.

Writing this blog has been a practice like that. I used to care so much about who was reading this blog, how many hits I got. I used to try to make the posts tidier in subject so they'd be more easily shared. At some point I just stopped caring about all that, and I started thinking of the blog as a resource for myself: a library of my thoughts and experiences related to writing. I would like it if other people found the blog helpful, or if the blog found a wide audience, but that's not my goal anymore. A goal like that depends on too many variables, too many unpredictables (or too much selling out). I'd prefer to build something for myself, which is a goal for which I know how to aim. When gathering friends and followers along the way becomes anything more critical than a side benefit, I find that I lose interest in blogging.

So. I'm not sure where that leaves my friend, or, again, whether I'm going to change my mind six months from now. (After my next horrible depression, ha ha. Ha.) But like I said, everything has changed since I figured this out. I reread some of the secret project yesterday (while I was trying not to hate the new story I'm writing for my workshop in a week and a half), and I was amazed that I had written it. It's so good. It needs work, but it's so free and fine, so much better than I remembered. And I know it's because I care almost nothing about whether that work is going into the world. It matters more to me to write it for myself, and as a tribute to what I've enjoyed about Ceremonials, than it matters that the book is long enough to be a novel or the stories can be submitted for publication on their own or the content is too queer or whatever the fuck. To me, it's so good. That's all I give a damn about.


Marc Criley said...

When I try to take the perspective of a reader reading my story-in-progress, the one thing I try to envision is whether they understand what I wrote. Is the base in place so that they know what I'm building up to? Not just in terms of plot, but also the sciencey stuff that shows up in SF. Are these foundational aspects presented smoothly and with clarity, so that the reader follows the twists and turns and the concepts as they veer off into madeupedness? (Also, is it entertaining? :-)

As far as what I write, yep, right there with ya. This is the story I want to tell, and this is the way I want to tell it. Hope you like it, but to me it's more important that I do.

Katharine Coldiron said...

"Does the reader understand?" is a tough question for me. Matt often says that I'm too subtle. I often read my work with the phrase "term papers have been built on less" in my mind. Finding the tightrope in between is very hard work, and I sometimes lean toward me rather than toward the reader. Probably something at which I need to get better.

Gratz, dude. I'm glad you got it happily settled for yourself. :)