Whom you're writing to
A few thoughts on audience
I’ve been thinking about audience in writing lately.
In the first creative writing classes I took over ten years ago, I was told not to think about audience. Just write what you need to write, I was told. Do your best work and don’t think too much about who would be reading it. One of my professors would talk about envisioning your “ideal reader,” but I wasn’t entirely sure, at the time, what that meant.
Then, I spent several years performing my poetry at open mics every week in front of live audiences. The existence of the audience could not be denied! At bars, black-box theaters, or bookshops with sometimes three people in the audience, sometimes seventy-five, I’d get immediate feedback from fellow artists. I heard Kelly Tsai advise, “Treat the open mic as your writing workshop,” and took this to heart.
At the open mic, sometimes we all liked each other’s work, but sometimes, we didn’t. And sometimes there would be only one other woman in the room or I would be the only woman or the only performer with queer content in my poetry, and so I knew even then that though I was speaking to a live audience, this audience may or may not have been my audience. But it didn’t always matter to me because I felt I getting my work out there. I was writing.
Later, in my MFA program, I again felt that I should (though I don’t know that anyone said this explicitly) focus on pretending to be “the reader” when I offered feedback to other writers. I’d say something like, “the writer’s images are very provocative for the reader,” kind of a disembodied comment since writer and reader were both there!
We rarely interrogated who “the reader” actually was, just some imaginary (in my mind) person in the future reading the published piece.
In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses writes,
“To refer to ‘the reader’ in this way is to flatten the audience to a single group of readers who share a single group of cultural expectations. Different readerships are overlooked or othered, the result of which is to make difference an exception. Difference becomes a burden, one that falls upon writers already burdened by their difference in the world.
As craft is a set of expectations, the workshop needs to know which expectations, whose expectation, the author wishes to engage with… The real danger is not a single style [of writing], it’s a single audience” (p. 119-120).
Salesses goes on to write about defining a very specific person to whom you’re writing. And I heard Yahdon Israel speak recently about this as well. He asked: Whom, exactly, is the person you’re writing for?
Defining a very specific audience for a poem or essay is an exercise I hadn’t asked myself to do before. Have you done this? Do musicians and painters do this? Marketers seem obsessed with the idea of audience, but I’m wondering if, as artists, we can reclaim the concept. Indeed, “audience” itself is a metaphor unless the literal audience is sitting right there. Outside of live performance, the audience exists, at least for a time, in the maker’s imagination.
Salesses’s advice can help a writing circle (formal classroom or otherwise) because it enables the group to ask the writer clearer questions about what they want to achieve. He’s saying that though people in a specific writing circle may not be that writer’s audience, some communication about intended audience can enable an open-hearted writing group to help the writer move the piece forward anyway.
Considerations of identity like race and disability and class and gender come into play here, as well as the other experiences these factor into, such as writing for instance, for an audience of people who grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee in the 1990s, listened to indie rock and neo soul in high school, are vegan, etc. (It may or may not match the writer’s personal experience, but that’s a whole other topic.) See how specificity of audience fuels the references and world your writing might create? You may or may not need to explain what tempeh or National Avenue means, depending on your audience.
In my solitary writing practice, I’ve found that defining my specific audience—a particular person who “gets” every single one of the references I’m making—has the ability to propel the creative process. It can be a motor, a heart, a sun. For what it’s worth, I think this is why some writers have the easiest time writing on social media, even if they’re otherwise feeling blocked. With social media, the audience is built-in immediately—no imagination required.
It also takes me back to the earliest audience-related advice I got, which I now realize I may have misinterpreted:
Yes, don’t think too much about whether “people” will “like” what you’ve written. However, it is useful to know whom you’re writing for. Maybe they’re someone you know, but maybe they’re someone with a specific set of experiences you’re imagining. Identifying this person as specifically as possible will help you make creative decisions during the writing process.
What do you all think? How do you think about audience?
Upcoming Events and Recent Publications
This Saturday, August 7th, I’m teaching a free Queer Poetry Writing Workshop online with the Queer Zest Zine Fest, 2:30-3:30 EST. (Note that this event is in Eastern Standard Time, not CST as I wrote in the last newsletter.) You can sign up for my event and other events on the fest’s website.
My latest post on the Ploughshares Blog dives into Monica A. Hand’s me and Nina, a poetry collection that fuses the sensibilities of Nina Simone with the poet’s own story in a fugue-like form where twin melodies weave into one another.
Registrations are open for Beyond the Frame: An Experimental Poetry Class through the Loft Literary Center. In my Zoom-based, multi-week class, we’ll be defining what experimental poetry means to us (we’ll include some considerations of audience and some more of Salesses’s questions in that process). What windows can we carve into our existing poems and crawl through?