So. This is the third or fourth essay on craft that I’ve written in a relatively short period of time. It may seem weird, I guess, since I’ve only had one story published to be having such firmly put ideas about what writing is and what it should be. But I guess this is a way for me to continually re-evaluate what writing is for me. And I hope that by doing this, I’ll be able to shed some light on it for others. Until I had written the essays, I really had no idea that I believed all these things about writing until I had finally written them down. I’ve been thinking about writing a lot, especially the purpose of it, or our motivations for it and lately I’ve come to the decision that it’s both very simple and very complicated. The reasoning I ran into while trying to wheedle out why we do what we do was ultimately ouroborous-like in nature. Once I had reached the end I had simply found that I had reached the beginning. When someone is foolhardy or sincere enough (not mutually exclusive) to actually ask the question of why one writes, he will invariably be given a list at once pretentious, sincere, ironic, and flippant by getting all different sorts of answers. This is to be expected, especially when considering what a diverse group of people can be found in a writing workshop. This particular question, I believe, is a twin, a mirror of the question, “What do you owe your audience and who do you believe that to be?” These two questions are at the top of a hierarchy of questions that are both posed to writers by others and that writers pose to themselves in quiet moments before, after, or even during the writing process. The reason these two questions are so important is the fact that they’re two separate sides of the same coin that may reveal the real purpose behind writing. By figuring one out, we can flip the formula and figure the second out.
The first question, why we write, is just almost too overwhelming and multi-faceted to even begin to wrap our heads around. For example, every writer probably has a different reason and most likely will have a host of different reasons all in descending order in his head–some reasons may be more powerful for others–but the first thing that happens with every writer occurs by himself with a blank page. I think that’s the first thing to consider. Before asking anyone’s permission to write, before we say that we wrote a story, before we say that we like writing, we first encounter the blank page and we learn the pleasure that it is to un-blank it. To fill it in, to decrease the negative space of that blank page. When we fill this negative space, we do so with things dredged up from within us. Each word is something we feel, think, wonder, posit, and on and on. And seeing this page become filled, in a way, legitimizes what we have felt and provides a way for us to look at ourselves in a new way, in a safe light that is free from judgment or from the fingerprints of anyone else in the world. This document and every one after it we create is, in a way, a piece of the last untouched soil in the world. The blank spaces on the map have been filled in, there are no more horizons to expand or explore, except for the ones that no one else can touch–until we let them. That’s step one. I believe, in a way, that’s why we write. We write to look inward. To bring the most honest parts of us to the surface and to fix them there and hold them up as artifacts of what we believe and who we are and what we value.
And so we then move on to the idea of what reader comes into our minds when we are working on our artifacts that we have dredged up from within. Normally, the answer that is given is usually along the lines of “someone who likes the same kind of works as me”. This probably isn’t too far from the truth, and yet, when we’re honest with ourselves, (literary writers, at least) we are usually meaning that the readers we imagine we are writing for are other versions of our very best selves. What I mean by this is that when writers put something down and before asking anyone else to read it, they decide that it’s good without asking for a second pair of eyes. They do it with only the judgment within themselves that the piece before them is up to their standards of what is good and that if they were the reader of the piece, they would find it worthy of their time and effort. And so if we writers are writing and judging a piece ourselves, where does the actual reader come in? Why is he necessary? Is he necessary? What responsibility does a writer have to the reader? I believe that where the reader comes in is right there—when the work is ready to be read, not only by the writer himself or his close friends, but by the public at large. When the writer’s book goes out into the world, the writer has essentially polished that original artifact from within and made it as perfect as it was possible to make it. Now, given that the writer has given this to the reader in order to make of it what he will, the question must be asked as to what the writer expects from the reader, which I believe to be the real question, or even what the asker of the question actually means when he asks what the writer’s ideal reader is, which is “what does the writer expect from his reader?” I believe that the writer expects the reader to be someone who is willing to put aside a great deal of time in order to read what he has written and to make a sizable effort in order to ascertain what it was the writer was trying to say with this piece of himself. Now, in order for this to occur, the writer must ascertain what it is he owes to the reader. This is, I think, ultimately the most important question regarding the writer/reader relationship. The writer has to determine what responsibility he has to his ideal reader. It is in this final decision the writer makes that determines how his writing will be seen—the object of writing as I see it, the purpose of it is to look inward to reach out. The whole act of writing is an act of introspection. In writing, we hold up that piece of ourselves to the reader and it is in that last holding up that we reach outward, letting the reader be the judge of that piece of ourselves we hold most dear, most secret, most sacred. And that is what the writer owes to the reader. The writer’s responsibility to the reader is to make that piece of himself that he has put into his book to be the truest, most honest piece of himself he can dredge up. No more, no less. The writer should not be glib, should not be flippant, should not be egotistical in his writing—he must write as if talking to a lover, as if talking to a best friend, as if talking to himself.
This was probably way too long of an essay in order to explore this pretty simple concept, but I’ve spent way too many nights and moments before, between, and after writing solely to contemplate this issue. After reading interview upon interview with authors in which the author is asked about his audience as well as the reason behind his writing, I think I actually came to a conclusion about how one can answer one question in order to get to the answer for the other.