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Who Do I Write For?

Maurice Sendak has been quoted (The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature, Bruce Handy, p. 59) as claiming to write “for no one but himself”. I understand that. I’ve also read that C.S. Lewis wrote primarily for himself, although since I can’t recall where I came across the quote (maybe it was Handy as well), I won’t stand by it. Given her limited publication record, Emily Dickinson is another writer who appears to have been her own primary audience.

Who do I write for? Of all the posts I’ve written, this one may be the most challenging, perhaps because I consider myself a very private person and, for a writer, it’s the most revealing question of all.

I am certainly the first audience for my own works. They must please me and reach a certain standard, which is why I obsess about the wording and expend a great deal of energy on the rewriting, editing and the publishing processes. And ultimately, if the audience who chooses to read The Ravenstones is not as large as I would desire/hope for, I won’t be greatly disheartened.

But it doesn’t end there.

Naturally, most of my professional work was determined or defined by the needs of the job, as a policy advisor or foreign service officer, and that of the recipient, he or she be Director, Ambassador, Deputy Minister, Minister or Prime Minister. My jobs entailed a lot of writing and I was good at it. In every case, my aim was to argue a case for action (or inaction) or provide essential information guiding decision-making. Beyond these memoranda, as the editor of a small community newspaper I produced a slew of editorials on various subjects, usually meant to prove a point and convince the readers of the merits of my position. Finally, I produced the odd article meant for publication, on defence policy and international relations.

Over the years I’ve also written pieces purely for entertainment. Some I’ve crafted and recrafted to my satisfaction but never bothered seeking their publication. Most of those pieces were short stories written as little gifts to celebrate birthdays and Christmas (one, naturally, involves bears; another deals with Santa being kidnapped). But the point is, for these, I was really both writer and primary audience. It mattered somewhat if the recipient enjoyed them, but it mattered more if I did. I ask myself, why is this so?

There are those who crave recognition and celebrity status; I’m clearly not one of those. My mother taught me that it was ungentlemanly to talk about myself, that one’s actions always speak louder – much louder – than one’s words. (I can still recall the exact moment she reprimanded me, in response to my boasting about the high grades my sister and I had earned at school.) This rebuke is hard to admit, even after so many years. Perhaps it’s why I find the publishing part challenging — because it feels more about recognition than about the content. I have to remind myself (regularly) that I have produced something both worthwhile and entertaining, a work worthy of sharing with the world.

A contrary view to this approach can be found in Author Media’s Sept. 16, 2020 post on The 10 Commandments of Book Marketing. Commandment #2 is “Thou shalt write for thy reader, not for thyself.”

Thomas Umstattd, the man behind (another worthy blog site providing advice to erstwhile writers), says that “the difference between a book and a journal is the audience. You write a journal for yourself. You write a book to thrill your reader.” Further, you must be prepared to “kill” everything that your reader will not enjoy (the fluff, the extraneous plots, the characters, everything not germane to the story’s essence): these are the sacrifices true writers must make to prove they are worthy of success. These are the writers, he says, to be found on the best seller lists.

Of course, Mr. Umstattd is correct, and it’s entirely possible to get so caught up in one’s story that the audience is forgotten. As a public servant I always had an audience for my writing; there was a purpose to everything I wrote – to summarize a complex set of issues, to encapsulate a situation or to convince ministers and cabinet to adopt a certain position. Doubtless, if I’d ignored that audience, my career would have been short-lived. I’d like to think I’ve learned enough over the years of writing to think that I can satisfy both myself and please my potential set of readers.

That being said, a completely different approach to the writer’s audience is being pushed online by those who maintain that if the writer fails to find a target audience, he or she is both naive and doomed. This is but one example of this viewpoint, just one of 66 million plus google listings on the subject of target audiences! They may well be right in today’s world of overwhelming choice.

In the olden days (by which I mean the 150 year period before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon) most writers had to please a small number of gatekeepers, the cabal of book, newspaper and magazine publishers that controlled who appeared in print or not (there are fewer and fewer of these with each passing year). Thus, the typical writer had an audience of one besides himself, one who they hoped understood the market and knew how to sell into it. As far as I know no one was doing market surveys back then.

That being said, one mustn’t ignore those standout popular writers like Charles Dickens, whose stories were serialized monthly or weekly and later published in book form. His popular readings became theatrical events in themselves. Arthur Conan Doyle had the opposite problem. He wanted to kill off his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, and was forced to bring him back to life by popular demand (a problem most writers would pay dearly for). Agatha Christie was another author who tired of her primary creation – Hercule Poirot – but she didn’t dare kill him off.

When I started writing this post, I took the view that writers prior to that period (the really olden days) never spent a single second on thinking about their audience; they were moved to write something – anything – and they went ahead and did so, notwithstanding the consequences. In fact, I imagined that except for those court composers and artists, who had to please their noble patrons, I doubted any great, lasting artistic endeavour was produced in this way. The more that I think about it now, however, the ones that we know of today, the playwrights – Shakespeare, Marlowe and the like – would have had to understand what resonated with their audience and what did not in order to survive. As for the early poets, philosophers or novelists – Chaucer, Milton, Hume, Rousseau, Cervantes – the answer is less clear.

Of course, many creators, good and bad, died in obscurity. Now lost in the annals of time, we will never know about their real motivation. (I trust I will not be included in that group, while aiming to remain true to myself.)

Why, then, do writers write? Here’s a nice, succinct answer from Lawrence Samuel in Psychology Today (Feb. 14, 2018). Samuel suggests several possibilities – writers write to tell people who they are, to share something, to make a connection, as a liberating or joyful experience, a therapeutic release or, quoting Erica Jong, for “the simplest and most compelling reason” of all – for love.

I don’t think I can do better than that.

Cover Photo by Arif Riyanto on Unsplash