I heard a conversation the other day regarding the relationship between writers and their readers (aka the “audience”). And this made me think about my own relationship with my readers.
I frankly was shocked when I heard someone say that they “100 percent wrote” for their audience when writing their book. Others must have also been shocked, because someone responded that they had been taught to not think about audience when writing. So which is it?
This is an individual decision. But I can say that I “100 percent did not write” for my audience when writing my memoir. I wrote that book for me. I was really curious to figure out how growing up in cemeteries, with my dad as a gravedigger, and then dealing with his unexpected death when I was 15, shaped me and my life.
My attitude when writing was, “I need to figure this out for myself. And if I can make it creative, and artful, and meaningful, and readers happen to respond or relate, that’s icing on the cake.” The actual process of writing the book was cathartic and it really helped me figure out myself.
I’d say I’m taking the same approach in my current manuscript Breaking Point: One Woman’s Transformation from Activist to Radical in 1970s America. There, too, I’m trying to answer a question: What makes a woman pick up a gun and embrace violence as a way to affect change? My seeking the answers to that question is taking me on a journey, which I’m documenting in the book. So this is a mystery I’m trying to figure out to satisfy myself. And much like in the memoir, if other people respond positively to my journey and want to join me, even better.
I’m so glad I happened upon that conversation, because I’m not sure I had spent a lot of time thinking about my relationship with my audience. I just know that I want people to read my work! But that motive behind writing is important.
It also helped me figure out what bothers me about some authors. Let’s say I follow 100 authors all doing the exact same thing — promoting their work. And let’s say there’s a few of them — maybe 25 — where something is just rubbing me the wrong way. I could not figure out what this is — there is just a general sense of unease. But now I know! I think when you write only with audience in mind, only thinking about what the audience will like, something feels forced and inauthentic.
Now of course, you do have to keep audience in mind. I know that my nonfiction work needs to be shaped and molded using aspects of the craft — I can’t write journal entries and expect people to be interested. But that shaping is also for me. I love writing nonfiction, experimenting with form and words and lyricism. It’s a challenge to myself to make it artful. I know it’s that art that will appeal to readers, but it appeals to me, too, as a creator.
This same argument applies to visual art, music, etc. — any creative medium. Music that is written only to appeal to a particular audience (teens, Top 40 radio, etc.) drives me crazy in its inauthenticity.
This is also what is probably making it such a challenge for me to snag an agent or editor. I refuse to write to a formula. I refuse to change Camilla’s story (as has been suggested by more than one person) to fit a particular mold or readership. So I may have to self-publish. But if I do, I can take comfort in that I was authentic, and readers will find their way to me, even if it’s a little harder for them to do so.
How would you assess your relationship between you and your audience?
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It’s an interesting question that you pose. I would read your book because I like you and think you are a good writer, (and a nice person), but you can’t expect to make friends with everyone in the world, just so they will want to read your book. Authenticity is really important, but there’s a limit to how many people you can connect with.
You have a job which gives you some sense of satisfaction and connection, so perhaps your writing only needs to make you happy and every reader is a bonus? I’m not sure about this, so I’d be interested in your thoughts. I appreciate that we all want readers! Preferably lots of readers.
Yes, I think that if the writing makes you happy, and you are truly getting something from it on a personal level, that will be authentic and it will connect with readers. Finding them is a different story, lol! Thank you for saying that you’d read my book 🙂
Stuart Danker said:
Yeah, this is always the question we try to answer. Do we write for our audience or for ourselves? Do we follow the ‘market standards’ or pave our own path? You seem to have found your balance, so here’s to self-publishing that memoir of yours!
Pat Solstad said:
I agree, Rachael. I have difficulty enough trying to figure out what I want to say for myself, let alone knowing what a particular audience will want. But if a writer wants to do the latter, I think s/he would have to guard against readers realizing that is what was done. I know that I, as a reader, would feel patronized if I thought a writer was doing this.
Thanks, Pat! Readers are savvy and they can tell when they are being pandered to.