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Nov. 23rd, 2009

Balancing Acts

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.

--Sir Winston Churchill


"To me the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make."

----Truman Capote

A little while back, Sarah Aronson talked about finding balance...balance between our writing and our lives. "Balance" is something I think about often. Because in the reality of life, there are so many things to balance. Writing is one of them.

But what about the elements of writing, specifically? I'm talking about drafting vs. revising, reading as a writer vs. reading as a reader, writing for yourself vs. writing for an audience. And what about details? Tension? Beginnings? Endings? How do you take all those reams of writing advice, all the lessons you have gleaned from novels and books on craft, and make them balance out? Because haven't you heard pieces of advice that contrast with one another? Who is right? Who is wrong?

I'm sorry to say I have none of those answers. But...stick with me anyway. Because this week we'll touch on a few writerly areas that I often have trouble balancing.

Today's topic?

Writing for yourself vs. writing for an audience.

Okay. Raise your hand if you've heard advice along these lines: You can't write for an imaginary audience. You can't write if you are picturing your grandmother/ mother/father/husband/wife reading it, so don't think about them. You can't write for a market. You must NOT EVER write "for a market." You must only write for YOU. Writing for YOU is the purest form of writing and anyone who does not write entirely for themselves is risking pandering to their reader, losing their artistic way, selling their creative soul, and creating work that will not stand the test of time.

Anyone ever hear things along those lines? Your thoughts?

Here's what I think.

Absolutely we have to write for US. Yes. When we spend months....years...writing a book, we have no way of knowing if that book will ever see the light of day, ever be published, ever be held by another human hand, let alone enjoyed or treasured. It is months and years with just you and the manuscript. So if you don't enjoy what you are doing, then what are you doing?

Don't do that.

Write for you. And write about what speaks to you.

Now watch as I contradict myself. Because I'm finding balance. The middle ground between contrasting advice.

On the other end of the scale is this notion:

Writing is communication.


Right?

Writing is meant to be shared. Is it not?

Here's a more eloquent way of saying it:

"A poem is the invited guest of its reader. As readers we open the door of the book or magazine, look into the face of the poem, and decide whether or not to invite it into our lives. No poem has ever entered a reader's life without an invitation; no poem has the power to force the door open. No one is going to read your poem just because it's there."

---Ted Kooser, THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL

Isn't that good stuff? And of course "poems" can just as easily be changed to "stories."

Ted goes as far as to say this: "I recommend that when you sit down to write you have in mind an imaginary reader, some person you'd like to reach with your own words. Have a sense of that person for whom you are writing and address your work to that person."


He has a point. Yes, we are solitary writers, writing for US. But we are also writing for young adults and children. We shape our words accordingly. Conscious or not, we speak to the reader we hope to reach.

Kooser points out that there is writing for US, and there is writing that is meant to be shared. His approach: Writing for "us" produces work that really only interests US. But when we keep our reader in mind, we invite that reader to share our stories, share our journey.

My summary of the two ends of the spectrum? Of course we have to write for our own reasons. And no, we probably should not try to write "to a market." But to pretend we are not trying to reach our readers is perhaps going a bit far. Our writing is meant to be shared. We want a child to hold our books, to read them, to love them, to come back to them time and again.

So, it's about balance.

* Do you need to shut out the vision of your mom/grandmother/husband reading your story, as you write it, to keep yourself from being inhibited? Yes, I would say so. Unless you are trying to reach your mom/grandmother/husband, that is.

* Should we write to a market? I think not....but that is certainly open to debate.
I think we write the stories we want to tell. If fairy stories are selling like crazy, and that's the story you burn to tell, then great. But if it's not, don't force it. It won't pay off in the long run. Write what haunts you.

(I cannot take credit for that marvelous quote, by the way.)

And finally, what Kooser is really trying to say is (and says it very well in his book), we are guests in a reader's hands. How long do we dare go on about our hemorrhoids, he asks? Yes, we have to write for us. But we have to remember there is a reader out there who will toss our book aside for another if we are too isolated, too acute in a personal agenda, too insensitive to his or her needs as a reader.

It's all about a little bit of both sides of the equation. Keep your reader in mind. But don't let them crowd you to the point of censoring yourself, or editing yourself, unduly.


The funny thing is, the more true we are to why we write, and what we write....the more we share of our unique selves in our writing....the greater the likelihood that we will earn that invitation into our reader's hands.