Writing for the Reader in Me

I have heard countless times since returning to writing and pursuing my MFA degree “write for yourself.” Coming from the profession I have spent my whole career in, the target audience has always been the first influence on work I have created. So the reader, naturally, is someone I want to write for, never mind the fact that I don’t know many of my readers – if there are even many outside of this blog.

Every writer must have experienced the exhilaration of reading their own work after some time has passed at least once. It’s like a whole other person produced it; a deliberate subconscious separation to a completed story that allows the writer to read it for the first time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Since I don’t have a specified audience for fiction in this embryonic stage, I write about subjects that excite and interest me, maybe scare me, and often stuff I want to learn more about. For example, I have never worked in a circus or government office, so a character I create may be campaigning for a local office or a veteran sideshow performer.

Then there is that old adage “write what you know,” which I do fair amount of. Thing is, some of what I know isn’t necessarily based on first-hand experience, some of it is observational and intuitive. I was never a patient in a psychiatric hospital nor have I committed a murder, but pulling from what I know about these subjects based on research and observation, I can place my head in those spaces and become those flawed characters, in the figurative sense. I know how they think and feel, whether they are rational or irrational, what they base their decisions on. They become real live humans in my brain and on the page. This is probably normal for any writer, perhaps all creative-types; I don’t know, I never asked. Whatever the case, it’s part of my writer’s tool box.

So I write for myself now with the intention that other people of similar mind and dysfunction will appreciate it – maybe even love it! It’s working out so far with another short story this year due to publish soon in an anthology about demons.

Tell me about you. I’m always interested in learning how others think about these topics. Do you write or create for yourself or others? Do you become your characters who deviate widely from your real life?

Happy November!

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2 thoughts on “Writing for the Reader in Me

  1. David, I think you make a few interesting points here. I think there is a few points here that I parse out differently. When and who is the reader? And are your characters credible although you don't do the things that they do. The first point is tricky. Some people write for that self satisfaction, some write to prove things to the people who said they couldn't, some people write (I guess) to the ideal reader or editor. I have to imagine that some people write to satisfy an agent or editor. Speaking to Jane Cleland, it sounds like if an agent or editor isn't excited about what she is writing she isn't either. I try to push that aside, and write a good story. A story that is different and stands out. It can't be so far outside the norm that people don't understand it, but it can't be a copy of something already out. So, it is where we find innovation but not invention all the time. I don't imagine an audience, I imagine a good story – like you mention above and immerse yourself into it. The hope is that the read will be just as exciting. I think you are right, that we (the writer) become readers at some point – and that is why I mentioned the when and who become our readers, because writers should be readers and those roles should constantly interchange. Which brings us to the credibility of characters. There is a balance between portraying a murderer and being one. Obviously everyone in the mystery genre would be locked up if we had to experience what we write, but it can also be a vision buster… a research project that could consume all of your time. I was watching a program that showcased Patricia Cornwall and she is so obsessed with her character that everything she does is to add to her character. She learned to fly a helicopter and does all this crazy stuff so she can write it. Okay, there is probably some technical things above helicopters that you can gleen, but that isn't what I write. And because she is so successful, she can afford to take helicopter-lessons. But for me, I want to write about things that feel genuine and connect. And a little research and background is fine. Michael Crichton was someone who took cutting edge science and connected it to the what if… but again, he buried himself in technology and research. So, where is that line between what we want out there as a representation of our lives, balanced to what people want to read? I don't feel like Henry James, Fitzgerald, and even Camus were people who researched – but drew in history and filtered it through how they see it. Hawthorne was great at writing about the puritan history in New England, but added a significant psychological element to it. So, when we say write what we know, maybe we should move away from that intimate definition of writing what is close to your heart, and adding the life you have experienced in books, history, family, and all things. Hawthorne is a very interesting blend of style and historical background. I write historically sometimes, and I find the convention of historical writing is in place because it isn't contemporary and we are constantly trying to frame and consider the historical context of our prose. It is the monster context in the room. And to constantly stop and find out if they had a telegraph in 1910 is something that can break creative flow and change the way I write. So, I need to be mindful of how I want to write and what I want to say. You don't have to be a politician to write about one, but you should know their job and what it entails. (Grisham comes to mind). However – for me, I ask myself… is that the story I want to write? Or should I be writing something more like me, something more important to how I see life? It might not be flashy or popular, but it will be more in line to how I see the world. Interesting points and a lot to discuss. I would love to hear more of your take on some this rambling I put out. That's what happens when you comment after not writing for a hurricane week. Be well. Nice job.

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  2. Thanks Ron! Where do I begin to respond? On the subject of research, I have a line I won't cross, it's the border of obsession. Any movie I have seen based on Crichton's work always seemed over-the-top, that has never worked for me as an audience member. I imagine I would feel the same reading his books. When it comes to subjects I am less familiar with, I learn enough to feel confident in what I'm writing about, to display credibility, at a level that makes sense to the story or communication. Sure, learning to fly a helicopter sounds fun, but not a realistic option in my life. Then again, I don't focus on the technical unless it's critical to the piece. I read a lot about psychology and sociology, not necessarily from text books and journals, but from stories and news articles on various aspects of the human condition. I look for better understanding to what I am aware of, what I question, and what I completely don't comprehend. I fill in voids and gaps of my knowledge and open new doors. I do it all at odd times, when I have 15 minutes to kill during lunch and I spot a headline in the news or when a subject pops into my head while waiting to fall asleep at night, I will look it up and read for an hour. My whole life has consisted of learning all the time, I never stopped when school let out. In this manner, I hope I am lending authenticity to the characters' "realness" as far as the reader is concerned.

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