Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Who Are We Writing For?

Excuse the ungrammatical post title. "For Whom Do We Write?" just sounds too formal on my first day back after a glorious 3-day weekend.

One of the events Mighty Reader and I attended during the American Independence Day Festivities was a traditional barbeque, featuring grilled meats and malted beverages and potato salad and non-traditional karaoke. All of this is by the way. The part of the 4th of July barbeque that interests me right now is the argument about politics.

The substance of the argument is unimportant (I don't think we actually even got there, truth to tell). What happened is that one person spent about half an hour carefully building up his position as self-appointed expert on politics and spinning flawed syllogisms to establish himself as the only informed person in the room so that the rest of us had--by his reasoning--no other role than to sit back and listen to his lecture and if we disagreed, we were admitting--by his reasoning--that we were idiots. You know the type, I'm sure. Next time, I'm going to hit him with something heavy.

Anyway, this was pretty much no fun if you were not the "expert" in the room and it was nothing like a conversation and the only point of the exercise was to let one person massage his self esteem. It was all about the speaker, and there was nothing, really, there for the listener.

I worry sometimes that a lot of our writing is serving that same basic purpose: we write for/about ourselves, wondering how much of us is getting on the page, how much of our secrets we inadvertantly give away to readers, how well our writing reflects our personal voice and points of view and how well our personal ethos comes across and if we'll be viewed as immoral and really, ultimately, we suffer along under the burdensome question of What Our Art Means To Us.

I just don't get it.

Admittedly, every once in a while I wonder what my writing says about me that I'm not seeing. But I don't wonder that often. I don't wonder if I have found my personal voice. I don't wonder if the real me is getting over on the page. I don't. Because I don't care.

I care about good stories. I care about good writing. I care, dear writers, about the reader's experience much more than I care about my own experience. I am alarmed when I see people blogging about the writer's experience as if that's the most important part of it. Because it's not. If I go see a movie, I want to not be aware of the director at all. I don't want to know about his experience making the film. I want the film itself. I want Steven Spielberg or whomever to care about my experience as a moviegoer.

This is not meant to sound all crankypants and it is still true that the writing life is quirky and interesting and unlike the reading life and should be discussed because, you know, the writing life is hard and often discouraging. But I think it's too easy to forget that we are supposed to be writing stories that will be read by others, hopefully lots of others who don't know us personally and never will and we'll be read long after our deaths and the important thing is supposed to be the text--the novel or the story--that we leave behind for these readers.

Speaking as a reader, I love you and the work you do, but when I read your book I want to forget about you. Which is to say, stop worrying about your Personal Expression. Stop worrying about your Voice. Stop worrying about being Individual or Unique or True to Yourself or whatever. Just stop. Stop worrying about it, stop blogging about it, stop talking about it. Just write well, for a reader you will never know. That's the job.


  1. Good point - I agree. I too also hate when people try to push their opinion onto me - especially when I don't agree with them. I really hate it in books. I want to read for pleasure. I do not want the authors personal opinions to be forced onto me.

  2. Whoa, nice new layout! So with fiction I don't have that problem at all -- simply because seeing my readers' reactions is the most rewarding part of writing for me. For nonfic, it's harder. Cuz it takes more energy to get people interested, and it's hard to think from the other person's perspective and think about how much they know, what they care about, what they need explained, what they don't...

  3. Exactly. Well said. This is what writing fiction is about.I will forgive an occasional glimpse of the writer, but only if I'm blown away with the story.

  4. Damn you, Bailey -- I was gonna post about this soon (with the stuffy "For Whom Do You Write" tag) and then you go and double wham me by (indirectly) spanking my current mental masturbatory post over at the archives.

    That being said, I don't care about injecting myself into my writing. I do care about voice, the storyteller's voice... the one that creates the thread and keeps it taut.

  5. So just write the damn book, is what you're saying? I can dig it.

    Crankypants away, good sir. Sugar-coating makes me irritable anyway.

  6. No. I don't agree. I think the key to our writing is us. I also consider the reader. I think the readers are important. But, I believe a reader wants to experience the unique and the personal. I'd wager that the best writers and the best movie makers and musicians and painters are all pursuing something very self-indulgent. If it was only about the story, then for many of us the best way to achieve that goal might be to support the writers we already deem to be excellent. I could send donations to the BTBTL* foundation, for example. Instead, we choose to start from the ground up, creating mediocre writing with the hopes of getting better and making something that hasn't been made before. I think that originality is key.

    The heart of a good story is strong emotion, at least in my opinion. And, to have that strong emotion, we need to be personal. Also just my opinion.

    *Bring Tolstoy Back To Life

  7. Davin: I would agree that we need to be honest when we write, that we don't hide behind the screen of narrator, but when I read a Davin Malasarn story, I want the story and I want the emotion and I want the truth but I don't want to read a Davin Malasarn diary entry (though that might me fascinating). That's sort of the difference I mean.

    But more than that, what I mean is this: Are you writing to see yourself on paper, to fascinate yourself with yourself, to piss in a corner and mark your intellectual/artistic territory, or are you writing to create beautiful and moving fiction for a reader? There are people who write only because they want to have someone pay attention to them, to listen to them. It's the difference between "look at me" and "I've made something nice for you." That's what I'm trying to say here.

    I am always concerned about being honest and saying something real in my fiction, but I'm not concerned about saying something about me. Which is the comment I would've left on your post yesterday had I not been, you know, working on my novel.

  8. Also, I disagree with this:

    "the best writers and the best movie makers and musicians and painters are all pursuing something very self-indulgent."

  9. If you care to read Roger Ebert's review of the film Pink Floyd- The Wall, it toes the line of Scott's theme. The film making process was brimming with hostility and discontent. But Ebert sums it up quite nicely:

    "Those tensions and conflicts produced, I believe, the right film for this material. I don't require that its makers had a good time."

    The full review is here:

  10. Interesting. This may go hand in hand with Davin's last post about our readers knowing us. I'm usually interested in an author once I've read a novel or short story. I'll look them up and read more about them, but that's not why I read their story. First they had to tell me a good story. I want to tell good stories. I'm working my way there step by step, but sometimes it's too easy to get caught up in the voice factor junk.

    Still, I think you're either writing "for yourself" or to create art and share it. If I wrote solely for myself I wouldn't even be here typing this comment.

  11. Michelle: My favorite authors are generally people whose observations about life interest me, and who are people who seem to have a deep understanding and experience of life. So that part of the writer-as-individual is important. But I have strong doubts that O'Connor or Tolstoy or Grass or Carey think/thought much about the presence or absence of their own identities within their works.

    I will agree that, in some way, all art is a self-portrait and we really only say anything about ourselves. I am talking about me here, then. But I also think there's a difference between a conversation and a lecture, between a confessional and a conversation, between a memoir and a fiction. Maybe I'm not sure what I'm saying today. Or, maybe what I'm saying is this: there are a lot of writing blogs where people don't seem to talk about writing nearly as much as they talk about themselves as writers. WTF?

  12. Don't think of you as a crankypants at all. More of a smartypants. You know, in a good way! ;)

  13. Davin: Maybe I'll attempt to rephrase.

    I have a huge ego. I mean, really really immense. You've no idea, no matter what you might think. But when I write, when I put on my author hat and pick up my pen, I lose that huge ego and I am a mind in the service of the fiction I'm writing and what I want and what I need from art and who I am as an artist all just goes away because none of that matters. Not a bit of it. That's all just ego, and there isn't enough room in any book for both the story I'm writing and my zeppelin-sized ego.

    What I'm afraid of is that some writers, you know, don't leave any room in their writing life for the story or for the pursuit of good writing. "If I get my feelings, the innermost me, onto the page, that's all that matters." Which is possibly cathartic but it results in some really dull reading, most of the time.

  14. I think there's room for both kind of writers--the way there's room for actors who disappear into a role, like Meryl Streep, or actors whose personas dominate their material, like Lucille Ball. Both masters of their craft--but slightly different branches of that craft.

  15. Scott,

    I gotta tell you I absolutely love this post even though I disagree (I always encourage writers to show themselves in their writing.)

    I think we have real life examples of writers who are absent from their work. Take a Patterson (I've read a few) or Clancy (I've read most) and you know that another writer could duplicate that same story and you wouldn't be the wiser.

    Showing yourself in your writing is a delicate thing to be sure. But word choice, scene choice, structural choices all reveal the writer, and removing oneself from these things leaves readers with writing that has the variety of oatmeal.

    Again, great post Scott.

  16. Scott, if I remember correctly, college was the same way. This is why I usually sat in the front but didn't raise my hand unless I had something non self-centered to say that actually added to the discussion the professor was trying to direct. I'm sure I said some stupid things, but I at least tried to say something smart instead of just trying to sound smart. There was much too "me me me" going on. I have a "me me me" blog, but it's private. I can be shameless there, I suppose.

    I love this post. I think it makes me ask the fundamental question of why I'm writing.

    By the way, I love your new profile picture. :)

  17. This is all very interesting to me. Scott, I feel like this is an important difference in approach, and it will be interesting in the future to see if this results in very different writing or the same.

    For me and my writing your line, "It's the difference between "look at me" and "I've made something nice for you."" set the two borders of where I want to be in my writing. I'm trying to create a blend of the two. It is part "look at me." I guess that's egotistical, but I'd also say that the making of art is egotistical in general.

    I think if I removed the "what I need from art" component out of my writing, then it wouldn't be any fun at all for me anymore, and I probably wouldn't do it. I can't read my own writing as an outsider, as much as I'd like to. I wish I could. So, to satisfy myself, there has to be something in the writing part of it that I like.

  18. Quote: Are you writing to see yourself on paper, to fascinate yourself with yourself, to piss in a corner and mark your intellectual/artistic territory, or are you writing to create beautiful and moving fiction for a reader?

    I think everyone who writes fiction no matter how they go about it wants to- is trying to do the latter- only self-important ***hats write to listen to their own words. Like public speakers (and we've all heard them) who like nothing better than the sound of their own voice.

    And I think those sorts tend to write how-to books or other non-fiction *laugh*. Not novels with characters that are not themselves.

    What I'm trying to say (badly, I'll admit) is this- it is my opinion that whether you try to fight it or not- every writer comes through in their words. Every human being comes through in their words, spoken or written.

    I think the writers who make the greatest impression on readers (or who do on me anyway) are the ones who get out of the way of their characters long enough to let the story unfold through the characters' eyes without trying to consciously filter everything through the author's particular 'style'.

    I don't even know if that makes sense but it does in my own head (not surprising lots of stuff only makes sense in here).

    Still- whether you try to or not, everyone's personality, for good, bad, or boring, comes through in blog posts, in fiction, in everything we write and say. We can't truly escape it.

    I don't think it's possible for any writer to keep themselves out of the work that much and still come through with authentic emotions. Just my opinion (with inflation not even worth two cents)


  19. Bru (and Mayowa): I agree that good writers let themselves into the fiction in a way, but I don't think that the fiction should exist primarily for that purpose. That's what I'm getting at here. There was a time when the desire to be a Writer was what got me to write. Now I just have a desire to write well and I don't think so much about my personal experience of writing and creating stories. The story is the thing.

    Davin: Maybe it's that I've pretty much come up with a method of writing that works for me and I no longer think about that method. Because I used to concern myself with the "this is me as an artist" side of the business, and it used to be a vital side of writing, but now it's not. I rarely (you got an email the last time this happened) ever question what I'm doing these days or why I'm doing it. I know what I'm going to write (in general, anyway) and I write it. Somehow it no longer seems to even be about art, to me. So huh.

    It's possible that I've simply developed a very ideosyncratic and rarified way of looking at writing, and I can no longer really talk about it with anyone else. It's like I can no longer talk about writing in English. I have considered this possibility.

  20. @Scott,

    That (fiction should not exist primarily for that purpose) is a great way to look at it. I think that fact is also true for "entertainment" and "enlightenment" and all the other "ments" that writers try to achieve.

    That does question most genre ficton (entertainment), most literary fiction (style and enlightment) etc.

    Perhaps a great novel has all these things, personal carthasis and exploration, entertainment, style and enlightenment?

  21. Mayowa: I am going to use "entertainment, style and enlightenment" as my personal motto from now on.

    Hey, when are you going to change your photo to show the shaved head? Or are you letting it grow out?

  22. @Scott,

    Ha! Go right ahead. I never thought about having a motto, but I've always wanted a seal (talk about pretentious eh?)

    This short hair picture thing is an excellent idea. Be careful what you ask for though, this skull is a mountain range in disguise :)

  23. Quote: "Now I just have a desire to write well and I don't think so much about my personal experience of writing and creating stories. The story is the thing."

    Scott, the story being the thing I can totally understand- but then I never wanted to write to 'be a writer' (in fact, in the past eight months of trying to 'become a real writer' I have written less than at any point in the past three decades and I'm miserable so that's a priority shift I'm trying to correct. Like turning a big ship around...)so maybe that experience is a new one for some who did do it because they wanted to 'be writers' before.

    For me it's always just been about the stories that the characters had to tell(and being I'm getting old now I think I can say 'always been' LOL).

    That's why there are characters in my work that are so unlike myself- because it's not just five versions of me populating a novel it is about telling each character's unique viewpoint and emotions.

    We all seem to want to do the same thing, write well and tell great stories- we just take different roads to get there.

    I agree too the new picture is very nice! :)


  24. Great post and sorry you had to deal with that. Ugh I hate people like that.

    I write for both. For myself, yes, but only because I have to. If I didn't write my stories, I'd, I don't know - spontaneously combust.:) (kidding). Mostly though, yes and yes and yes, it is for the reader. The reader's expeience is top top of the reason I write.:)

  25. Scott, from your post, it seemed as if you were talking about writers blogging habits rather than what your later comments suggest.

    In terms of blogging - dependent on the audience (yes the reader is important) but what if the reader is a writer too who wants to hear how other writers feel. So what if a writer wants to write about their feelings and their thought processes. So what if you think it's self-indulgent and solipsistic. Live and let live. Write and let write. Writers have it hard enough being in their heads most of time without any 'story' support; if they want to write on their blog for therapeutic reasons, who are you to say it's wrong? I personally appreciate it sometimes to read another writer's thoughts and feelings just to relate and not feel as if I'm the only weird one who is not balanced like people like yourself, who 'don't care' about these things. You say you have a big ego - good for you and probably the self-esteem to boot. Good for you that you never question yourself. But even if you're covering topics such as politics, religion etc in your posts, you are still being subjective - you cannot get 'away' from yourself and your opinion. As there are different types of writers, there are different type of readers in terms of what they want to write and read. There's nothing wrong with looking inwards or outwards when it comes to expressing yourself. Everyone is at least 51% self-indulgent, if that. Write and let write. Leave the writer be. And as a reader, read and let read. You don't have to read the blogs of those writers but you shouldn't say what they do is wrong.

    When it comes to published work - then yes, the reader and the story is king.

    Jessie Mac

  26. Jessie: "You don't have to read the blogs of those writers but you shouldn't say what they do is wrong."

    Er, pot-kettle-black, I think.

    Also, I was not posting about blogging.

  27. One of the biggest compliments I ever received for my writing was when I was asked to see a therapist because of a piece I wrote about an abused young man who finally murdered his abuser (his mother). The therapist told me, "No one could write so powerfully and insightfully if there weren't some personal truth to the story."

    Wow, I was so happy.

    (Kinda sucked for my mom though, who, in case it needs saying, was neither abusive nor murdered by one of her offspring.)

    Looking back on it, I realize probably anything a teen wrote with a suicide or murder theme would get flagged, no matter how inelegant the writing, so perhaps it wasn't the tremendous compliment I took it for. Sigh. Another illusion destroyed.

  28. @Davin.

    *Bring Tolstoy Back To Life

    Done. Zombie Tolstoy. He wants to eat your brains.

  29. If Tolstoy came back, I would eat HIS brain.


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