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by Mike Cooper | May 7, 2023

Once we have passably answered the question of why we write (or at least have stopped losing sleep over it), we run smack into the next question: Who am I writing for?

If you already have an answer to that, I encourage you to stop reading this right now and go on with your happy life. Bake a cake. Plant some flowers. Read a book. Go and write to whomever your audience may be.

If you’re still here, you’ve probably—like me—been wrestling with this question for a long while. You may have started out—like me—writing for your parents, or a sibling, or a friend. Maybe you still do. When we learn to write in school, we write for our teacher (Mrs. Frazier). Then come love letters to a significant other (Mary Beth Hagedorn). Maybe a letter to the editor (Fix the damn pothole on 3rd Street!). Some people write to themselves, some to an imaginary being.

I believe that all writing is good writing (like violin practice), so even if we fill journal after journal with our thoughts and observations and then stuff them in a trunk in the attic (or burn them in the back yard) never to be seen by another living soul, I think it’s still beneficial.

To “publish” means (according to Merriam Webster) “to make generally known; to disseminate to the public; to produce or release for distribution.” So, if we’re going to “disseminate to the public,” who the hell is “the public?” Is it the nameless, faceless crowd in the dark theater? Is it “Everyman?” Is it a jury of your peers? Is it anyone willing to listen?

Some people say that you must write, first and foremost, for yourself. But does that mean that you are writing to yourself? Some people say to write to one (external) person, whether real or made up. Some people say to write to an actual “audience”—perhaps a fan base or like-minded individuals. John Steinbeck shared this little bit of wisdom:

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”

Mary Karr keeps a bell jar on her desk filled with a collection of small, surreal skulls. She says this is who she writes for (along with an assortment of pictures of famous authors she has on her writing room walls).

I usually write for my wife, Irene, because she is the person I most want to impress in the world and whose feedback is most important to me. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I write to a complete stranger, or a younger version of me, or someone else completely.

I think that no matter who you write for, you should consider how your writing will be of benefit to them—how your questions can help them to see the world a different way. Don’t tell them something they already know.

And, in order to overcome “Editor’s Block,” the two most important things for me are:

1) To write to someone who encourages and loves you.

2) Not to attempt to write to everyone.

So maybe put a little mirror on your writing desk, or a picture of a loved one, or a famous author that you respect, or a stuffed animal. And consider these words from Margaret Atwood:

Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.
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by Ellen Santasiero | April 4, 2023

Photo by Ajin

Last month I participated in a twenty-four hour “playfest,” which meant I agreed to write a ten-minute play in eight hours, overnight. I know. Crazy is as crazy does.

Of all the positive outcomes of that experience, one stands out. It was afterward when one of the actors in my play said, “I get what you were doing with the bag of chips.” (O, to be understood!)

The play is set at a Very High Tech startup that caters to its Millennial employees’ basic needs for catered lunches, on site acupuncture, and egg-freezing.

So, my protagonist, twenty-nine-year-old Nate, has on his desk his drink of choice and a bag of chips. Nate is a brilliant coder and team leader working on a Very Important Project that will change the world, utterly. Except he’s failing. He can’t get the program to run. So the Big People Upstairs (who are, of course, the same age as Nate) add a new member to Nate’s team: a boy in his late teens, a Wunderkind, just as Nate once was.

At first, Nate resists the young coder and his fresh ideas, but eventually he accepts that the kid is, in this case, a better coder than Nate himself, and that he should and will capitulate to the kid’s superior knowledge and skill. That’s all well and good for Nate, but how does the audience know that he’s had this internal realization?

Enter bag of chips.

Before Nate asks the kid, “Whaddya got?” he crosses the room with the bag of chips and—wait for it—proffers the open bag to the boy so he can reach in for a handful.

You get the picture. A crunchy olive branch, a salty peace offering, that kind of thing.

Even in the mind-numbing novel of ideas, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which I’m reading right now for reasons best explored in a different post, objects sometimes do the talking. The story’s protagonist, Hans, loves to smoke a cigar after meals. He’s addicted to cigars, in fact. One of the tiny internal shifts that Hans experiences—one that will allow him to stay at the sanatorium in Switzerland and not return to his former life at sea level—is made visible to the reader when Hans notices that the cigar doesn’t taste as good as it usually does (it tastes bad, even), and tosses the cigar into the edelweiss, never to be seen again.

“No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams in 1927, which is just another way to say, no things in your story without a job to do.

Objects are just waiting for us to give them a job to do in our stories. And, they’ll work for free, with no expectation of lunch, catered or otherwise.

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I went searching for a recent tweet by a writer I admire, and couldn’t find it. Fittingly, the tweet mused on the suggestion that everyone has been writing the same human dramedies—the same histories of trauma and triumph—for eons, each from a slightly different perspective. As with many tweets, it can be read (at the very least) in two ways: that there is nothing new under the sun, and we (especially we who fancy ourselves creative) only replicate rather than innovate; conversely, that we are indeed snowflakes, made up of the same stuff but in awesome, infinite arrangement. Additional possibilities abound, of course. Some are cheerier than others.

I say fitting, too—that I couldn’t locate the thought in the 24/7 textual Indie 500 that is Twitter—because Michael and I will this week head to the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) to rub patched elbows with twelve thousand of our fellow writers. Twelve thousand people will sit on and in front of panels that will discuss writing concerns including voice, genre, education, and the ever-shifting landscape of the publishing industry. As both writers and instructors of The Forge, a creative writing program, we have a good deal of skin in the game. This year our Superbowl is in Seattle, a virtual home field.

Once upon a time I had a conversation with a judge in Reno, Nevada, a place where you might as well tell the truth. It was a friendly chat, nothing law-bound, in which I’d said there was a time I thought I’d be a public defense attorney in NYC. He said public defense was a hard row to hoe. He himself had run a notoriously successful firm with scandalously wealthy clients. He suggested I go back to school. “There is always room at the top,” he said.

I recognized the quote—purportedly a response from Daniel Webster when he was cautioned against becoming a lawyer—he was advised (by people who meant well, we shall presume), that the field, in the early nineteenth century, was saturated. The idea of a “top,” even to the synapses in my young-twenties brain, even in 1986—the year before Wall Street glamorized rather than vilified abject greed—felt wonky. Wonky, but prevailing, like a March wind whipping the Nebraska plains.

It would be another three decades or so before dancer, choreographer, educator, and visionary Liz Lerman would give me language for my ambivalence regarding “top” (and the implied “bottom”). Lerman founded and developed Critical Response Process, a dialogic alternative to creative workshop models that traditionally silence the artist. She also wrote a collection of essays called, Hiking the Horizontal, which her website says, “offers readers a gentle manifesto to bring a horizontal focus to bear on a hierarchical world.” Neither a top, nor a bottom, then, but a horizon of indiscernible end. Of boundless access and possibility.

AWP is a curious event: Twelve thousand introverts crushed together under one roof, twelve thousand hearts pounding with ambition, twelve thousand and more perspectives on a single moment. No recollection or interpretation will be the same as another.

This AWP, I think I’ll leave the sky to the stars, is what I’m getting at. I want to listen to some stories, marvel at the poets, and stare across Elliott Bay, through the inevitable mist, to the infinite horizon, where I know there is room for me and my work.

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