As a frequent-flier at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference I’ve heard an incredible array of craft lectures delivered by a collective embarrassment of intellectual riches. They’ve rewritten my assumptions, thrown down gauntlets, touched off inspiration, haunted me months or years after the fact. One that returns to me often is a lecture Alice McDermott gave. I remember almost none of it. But the central theme was a refrain she repeated throughout the hour (using the device of repetition as deftly as any poet could, resonance and shifted sense tumbling over one another, kaleidoscopic, expansive.)
“Whom do you write for?”
It’s a common enough question for writers, whether we’re pondering it at the marketing level (who is the audience for this piece?) or navel-gazing over the vicissitudes of the creative process (do you have an “ideal reader?” Is it a real person, or imaginary? Is your ideal reader another writer? Is it someone you know? If real, do they actually read your work or do you just write “for” them in the abstract? Do you have a consistent “first” reader and if so is it reciprocal and what do you do for each other? Etc.)
Can any of us say honestly that we write “for” ourselves? And would we be better writers if we truly did write solely for ourselves? In the quest to free oneself from undue influence it seems easy to fall into a kind of solipsistic irrelevance (myth of Narcissus, anyone?). At the same time, that quest is critical to our development, just as the self-absorbed, egocentric mindset of a teenager is a vital step toward adult individuation. You’d be foolish to think you could skip it.
Are you in a long-term relationship with your reader (whether real or abstract)? I have a wonderful novel writers’ workshop I’ve been meeting with since 2001. Supportive, critically acute (and, blessed bonus, every one of them can cook), these folks have been an indispensable source of wisdom and guidance and accolade and bullshit-calling and everything a writer needs. Yet, as we all increasingly notice, in ten years we’ve each adapted to one another’s rulebooks. We write, like it or not, for better and worse, richer and poorer, for each other, anticipating what this person will take issue with and what that one thinks a plot should be. Our group has developed shorthand, the way married couples do. We are all writing leaner, better, cleaner, as a result. We are also all just a little less interesting. Influence cuts both ways. And like parental criticism, you hear it enough times and it doesn’t matter: you’re going to do it for yourself, in your head, forever.
Does your ideal reader, your “whom,” vary with each thing you write? Is there a monolithic muse looming over your monitor, tinting the ink in your pen? Is your phantom reader a mentor, a teacher you wish to please? A great predecessor to whom you hope to pay homage? Is it an imaginary younger iteration of yourself, unwittingly pulling your book from a store shelf, not realizing his life is about to be irrevocably changed? Do you write, not for someone, but at them? Are you possessed by an unslakable need to explain something, to justify, to make amends or eke out revenge or both? Do you write for a jury? For a love interest? For a god?
I have a handful of people, some of them fellow writers, some not, who have been, consistently or sporadically the Other for whom I write, or at least, the potential reader I hold in mind as a focus object. In poetry this has often resulted in a strong epistolary impulse for me, and I’ve had to trash innumerable drafts of poems where one or two decent ideas got bogged down in something that had become a love letter with line breaks – too personal, too hermetic, too ekphrastic, too specific to my projected reader for anyone else to care. However, in some cases, and perhaps especially when one’s Reader is also a writer, there is also great potential for an ekphrastic relationship that truly transcends name-droppery and intellectual posturing. We do not write in isolation, though God knows it feels like it much of the time. Every one of us is in dialogue with the entire history of our art, and no one’s likely to amount to much if they can’t see that. When we acknowledge our debts to our ancestors, the resonance of our writing deepens. And when we seek the minds and souls of our forebears and read them with the thought that in some way they too are reading us, then we are perhaps approaching what Borges meant when he said (And thank you again, Alice McDermott, for this quote) "good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves," and reading [is] "an activity subsequent to writing-more resigned, more civil, more intellectual."
And here’s a question: whom do you edit for? I’ve realized I edit for the people who intimidate me the most. I’ve got this wristband that has “WWJHD” on it (What Would John Hollander Do?) I think about people who might someday read me (note the phrase, folks) and contemplate where I might be exposing something stupid, uniformed, nebbishy, unwittingly derivative, been-there-done-that. I apply their imaginary judgments to my work, one after another, the way optometrists do with those lenses. (“Better? Or worse? Better? Or worse?) I scan drafts imagining I am looking through the eyes of this expert and that scholar, this ex-boyfriend and that second cousin, each of them exposing different layers of ineptitude, though I never catch them all.
I don’t think my way is necessarily a good way. My first experience writing a novel was a 15 year nightmare because I was so hamstrung by the people in my head whom I knew could see straight through me. My second time around, I managed to shed my ideal reader long enough to get the book done, and it was a joy to write – and funny enough, my agent assumed that I must have a background in food television as my protagonist did because I was so dang authoritative about that universe. I couldn’t believe how easy it had been, finally, to write persuasively and masterfully, and all it took was kicking my ideal reader to the curb! Then, I found myself talking about the book with an old friend, someone really smart whose opinions matter to me, who happens to have background in the food world and the film world. And I knew instantly that I would never willingly let this person see the manuscript unless it had a big fat Pulitzer prize on it. Every insecurity returned in full force. I went back into the manuscript and started pulling out anything I thought could reveal me as an impostor. Did the resulting revision improve the book? Probably. Could it just as easily have destroyed it? Probably. Does your ideal reader hold you close and tell you it’s all right? Do they hold your feet to the flames? Both? Whom do you write for? And why?