A question came up the other day regarding the audience for a particular short story. That question may be interesting after a story is written, but when it’s in progress, I’m not sure a consideration of audience is particularly useful and may, in fact, be detrimental to the writing process.
We all have our reasons for writing. Some of us write to entertain. Others write to answer a voice we’ve heard in something we’ve read. Some of us write to try to make sense of something that seems incomprehensible, and some of us write to try to save ourselves. When it comes to all four of these reasons, count me in. I write because I want a shaped narrative to illuminate some aspect of our living that would remain hidden if not for the written word. I write to closely observe the human behaviors that mystify me. I write to practice the art of empathy.
Anton Chekhov listed compassion as one of the elements he considered essential for a good short story. Like Chekhov, I believe a good story increases our understanding of what it is to be someone whose experience we may not share. Joseph Conrad said this:
My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
“. . .that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” Exactly. That’s why literature exists—to show us those truths we didn’t even know we needed. The question of audience, when examined through the lens of this Conrad quote, seems to imply a general audience of humankind. That’s as far as I’m willing to go during the act of creation. I’m writing for any reader who happens to find my work. I’m writing to show that “glimpse of truth.” Any other consideration of audience threatens to shape the narrative in a way that may close off possibilities and spontaneous discoveries.
When it comes to my obligations during the writing process, my only loyalty is to the close observation of the characters and their situations. Good writers live their work from inside their characters. Eudora Welty put it this way:
What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.
That act of imagination can take us to necessary places—places of insight that express our common humanity—but we can’t risk a consideration of audience forestalling our arrival. We set a character into motion. We live inside that character, observing closely. We let the writing show us what we didn’t know when we started. We make that leap of faith all writers must make, that leap that tells us we can see the world from the perspective of any person, no matter how different we may be. In the process, we become our work’s audience. We question, speculate, dramatize, and discover, and if we’re really good at what we do, we end up at a place that takes us by surprise but also seems inevitable. We transport ourselves through imagining the lives of our characters.