One of my favorite sayings is that a book is not finished until it is read. I find so many helpful insights woven into this statement. First, it reminds me that all this toiling I’m doing behind closed doors is not because I’m antisocial and unwell, but because I’m willing to go deep and long if it will help carve out more meaningful lines of communication. Second, it helps me to contextualize the need to define my audience, a task I think many writers find baffling.
The first few times I was asked to define what kind of audience I was writing for, I had no idea how to respond. I don’t know, I would think, a big one? In super-mature fashion, I came up empty handed so many times, I started to feel a little self-righteously indignant. Wasn’t I supposed to be doing my best to write according to my own sensibilities and unique voice? Weren’t artists supposed to create without caring what anyone else might think?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was repeatedly hitting my head against one of the biggest paradoxes of a writer’s approach to her work. We absolutely should be writing in our own voices and drawing on our own experiences, but we cannot forget that, ultimately, writing is an act of communication. Most art is, really. And going too far in the direction of writing for oneself can be just as dangerous, creatively speaking, as trying too hard to pen a bestseller.
As with any piece of writing advice, there’s an art to working with it. In this case, I find the idea that a work needs a reader to be complete particularly appealing, because rather than placing the emphasis on how others might judge our work, it places it on the fact that writers and readers need each other in order to experience the best the written word has to offer.
What’s more, the fact is that 99.9% of us are myopic about our work. If we give it any kind of close attention, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and having someone look in on our imaginary playgrounds from the outside can give us invaluable perspective on how well they’re really holding up. I think, in fact, that we should hope and strive to have readers in our lives who compassionately point out flaws in our writing that we never saw, not because revealing what we didn’t see shines light on our technical or imaginative shortcomings, but because we know that, without an outside perspective, we’re robbing ourselves of the ability to see our work fully. The writing, in other words, might be done in private, but the awareness of the writing simply cannot be generated alone.
So when I think about defining an audience, I start with people I already trust to give me valuable feedback on how I’m presenting myself to the world. My sisters. My best friend. My husband. They’re always in the front row. And seated next to them are their friends and trusted advisers. I have a few critics in there, sure, because I’m my own worst enemy, but I try to introduce a bouncer who regularly checks to be sure that most of the remaining seats are filled with people who love the books I love, people who care and wonder about the same things, people whose books I’d want to read, should they offer them to me. Eventually, my audience becomes people who would be keeping literature alive for me anyway, even if I never chose to write another word.
Art: Rembrandt, St. Jerome Reading in a Landscape