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Am I the Audience?

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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