“I think it is a collective self you are ultimately writing for, but not a universal one: you are writing for anybody, but not for everybody.”—Anita Sullivan
On The Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—August 2017— My niece writes romance novels and sells enough books on Amazon to earn herself a six-figure income. She is proud of her writing and secure in her audience, for whom she confines herself to a chair for many hours each day generating a flow of words that—much like the trees along city sidewalks—are carefully calibrated not to stray too far in any direction while still giving the impression of wild abandon.
I write poetry and various kinds of literary prose, and from this I usually garner a three-figure yearly income starting with a number between 1 and 4. I am proud of my writing, too, which also requires many hours in front of a computer. As for wild abandon, that’s my bottom line, my starting point, my chief self-imposed requirement. As for my audience, I really haven’t got a clue.
But every now and then someone—an editor, a member of my critique group, a reader —will clear a throat, put on a no-nonsense expression, and ask, Who is your audience? as if forcing me to face this previously-hidden issue will reveal to me what a dolt I am for not making money with my writing.
Here’s my honest attempt to wrap my head around this question that, among many other urgent questions about my writing practice, never spontaneously occurs to me at all.
The quick answer most poets give to this question is “myself.” This is meant to sound vaguely clever and profound, but really conceals an uneasiness: why do people keep asking me this question I never bother to ask myself because it’s so boring and irrelevant?
So, let’s take a deep breath and move on to answer No. 2: I think there is always an understanding that you, the poet, are writing for something more like “a larger version of myself.” After all, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, part of your mind is always reading along, which is to say acting in the capacity of “someone else.” In a sense, all writing is double-think, because you’re doing before and after at the same time. The audience only exists on the reading side of the border; the writing side is secret, silent, which is to say not yet visible. When you are writing creatively you really don’t want an audience, yet.
Therefore, come to think of it, there is a place and time during the process where there is the necessary illusion of no audience ever.
But how large is this “larger version of myself,” and how far does it extend to others who are definitely “not me” at all? I think it is a collective self you are ultimately writing for, but not a universal one: you are writing for anybody, but not for everybody.
Just as in regular direct engagement with other people, there are always some out there whom you will not and cannot reach. This body of humans surrounds you on all sides like a vast sea around an island, and it is possible to go Dutch and increase the size of the shoreline to some degree. In writing, as in speaking, you do this by employing various skills of rhetorical persuasion. I believe, though, that in poetry, the drafting (writing) period is longer than the editing (reading) period, which is to say the issue of audience occurs later in the process than it does in other kinds of writing.
Or to put it another way, in poetry, rhetorical devices are most effective if they are not consciously brought in at the beginning to attract attention, but are identified with some surprise later, having emerged in tandem with the essential oddness of the whole enterprise.
In writing poetry, I want two things: 1) to reach out and ignite a vision inside another heart and spirit that will be equally unique to the vision that caused me to write the poem in the first place, and in the context of an infinity of possibilities, will be only a few million atoms dissimilar to my own; for of course it cannot be “the same”; and 2) in this process, to actually bring across into the uttered realm something hitherto unuttered, even by myself. This is how poetry knits up the world, by telling people something the poet did not previously quite exactly —know, either.
Ironically, this unique-perspective aspect of poetry is always balanced by the need for people to hear something they “can relate to.” If you think of poetry as being the tenor and the vehicle (the core idea and the method of delivery of that core), I’m saying that the audience I seek hungers for a new core much more than for a new vehicle, and these two ought to be distinct within the creative cauldron of the individual poet’s mind, or else one or the other will run off with the sun’s chariot.
Or else you will end up writing another novel in your best-selling romance series!
In terms of numbers, no poet has any idea how many other human minds can be so touched, so ignited, even if everyone on the planet reads what you write: i.e., it’s a crap game. So, you are writing in a nexus between wishing there were more people in the world at least somewhat like you who would be likely to be reading your work and “getting” it—and the wish that you could for once actually, actually, actually say exactly what the “you” that you believe yourself to be, meant to say. In the end, alas, we scarcely write for ourselves, much less cordon off an audience of somewhat similar souls to meaningfully connect with.
So, again, yeah—if you want to write on the audience side of the border between saying and non-having-said-yet, write popular fiction. Or tweet.