Saturday, January 26, 2008

Who Do You Write For?


Who do you write for?

(and you are writing for somebody, aren't you?)

"Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story."
--- F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my writing, I find audience to be such a fundamental motivator of process and fuel for voice, I don't know how anyone could write seriously without it. Or a sense of it.

Audience gets your hand moving, your fingers twirling. "What do you have to say?" is very closely entwined with "who are you saying it to?" It very much guides "how do you want to say it?"

Reading William Zinsser, like, the first week in my undergrad Journalism I course, helped me identify something I'd always instinctively guessed about audience: the stories you choose to tell, the words you pluck from the ether to tell them, are very much influenced by the imaginary people just off the page you're addressing. Or in the case of a high school Speech class, where everything written is read aloud that period, or the following day, or later that week, you're writing for your very real classmates, and the teacher, an audience of your peers, essentially.

Tickling my teacher and my classmates was always fuel for process, got me bending over the paper and going for the jugular, as it were. At the newspaper, and in my fiction, the audience is broader, perhaps, but I still aim for that sophisticated reader with a sense of humor and heart. Maybe that reflects me, but it's a bit different than writing to myself. It's presenting myself, as I am, in a persuasive way to bring people around to my way of viewing the world. It's a bit of voyeurism, of channeling another's thoughts, made easy by the lyrical voice that carries them there. At least that's how I see it. It's making love, in a way: swapping sweat, and fluids, and intense groans and glances, without mussing the bed so much.

An obstacle I've had to identify and work to get around in teaching is the idea of me as audience. Of course, I am a part of my students' audience. I see and hear how their stories are constructed in our sessions, and I read the drafts and rewrites they turn in. But are they writing for me, to me? I hope not. Because there I see the danger of writing to meet their idea of an ideal they think I'm looking for, or worse, to fulfill the assignment and just do the work for the exercise's sake.

Sure, sometimes you have to do that. But if in the process of doing the work you're not awakening something deeper, something more focused, something more tangible and living from the center of you that yearns to write, needs to write, then we really are just killing time in the cubicle, and in the classroom, and the prospect of students gaining something deeper from the writing, or learning something useful from their process, is cut off from the start.

Engagement, right? That's what an audience, or an idea of an audience in the writing process, brings to what's on the page. It's a mutual gut check: if the writer is invested in the material, we at least give them the benefit of the doubt and read on. If not, here comes the blessing and curse of the medium being so portable, able to held in the hands – it can always be put down, cast aside.

We're looking for the compelling story, the one that's never been told, or told in this way, before. Unless the writer has lived it, breathed it, smelled it, tasted it – or seen and believed in it enough to bring forth a singular vision – what the sophisticated reader is getting is merely a facsimile of experience. (Which all writing is, of a fashion, though we sophisticated readers demand that it stand up and dance a jig or take a bullet and writhe on the floor a bit for us. So damn picky, readers.)

Voice, and its awareness of audience, really sells a writer's commitment to the story, and how well we are engaged as readers. It doesn't have to be some mystical, fleeting thing. It's about identifying the material that is working, reading it aloud, directing and placing the demand on students to notice and comment on what is working in their writing, and to talk about why, and then to carry forth those insights in active rewrites of the material, going for and working toward an ever-more sustained passage of effective, engaging writing. To know who you write for, to feel around for the words and images and places and sights that get the story to where it is directed and most effectively get across what you have to say.

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