Saturday, May 12, 2007

Does the Audience Matter? 5

The answer we come to, after much consideration, is: Yes . . . but only in certain ways, only at certain times.

Robert Silverberg aptly summarizes where we have arrived so far:

Stories of mine that I had thought quite minor indeed had gone not only to gain awards nominations but, more than once, the awards themselves; stories that had seemed to me to be failures when I wrote them had been reprinted a dozen times over in later years; and, occasionally, a story that moved me profoundly as I composed it had gone straight from publication to oblivion almost as if it had never existed at all. . . .

[T]he moral is clear, as least to me: write what satisfies you and let the awards and the anthologizations take care of themselves, because there's no way of predicting what kind of career a story will have. Strive always to do your best, and, when you believe that you have, allow yourself the pleasure of your own approval. If readers happen to share your delight in your own work, that's a bonus in which to rejoice, but it's folly ever to expect others to respond to your work in the same way you do yourself.
—Robert Silverberg, Introduction to We Are for the Dark, pp. 243-244, in his anthology of novellas Sailing to Byzantium

Mr. Silverberg is talking about writing and publishing science fiction, of which he is an acknowledged master, but his thoughts apply equally well to poetry and other kinds of writing.

Yet the quote above touches on one realm in which the audience does matter, and matters a great deal. There is one special area that means a great deal to any writer: the response, after every else has been done. Even if you avoid folly, and write the best the you can at what you want to write, ignoring all other considerations, it is indeed a delight when some reader responds to your work, and lets you know it. Every honest writer will admit to the pleasure of that encounter.

Robert Grudin writes of the creative encounter with clarity and accuracy. I must quote his essay at length, because it contains numerous truths:

Let's say that you are a professional writer with three or four respectable books in print. On a regional tour for your latest title, you have just given a talk to a bookstore audience of about thirty people, and now about fifteen are waiting in line as you sit at a desk, signing books.

You glance up at the line of people and exchange gazes with one reader who is clearly lit from within. (I say "reader" because gender, age, ethnicity, and social stratum are wholly irrelevant here, obliterated by a generic revelation.) The reader slowly approaches, eyes luminously fixed on you, looking at you as though you had been freshly minted in Paradise, looking the Look that says Thank you for having been born. You have never seen this reader before, but the Look knows you intimately, grasps what is special about you, perceives you not as an indifferent array of flesh and hair but as a breeding poetic soul.

At last you shake hands and the reader speaks. The discourse, made concise by time pressure, may reflect on any aspect of your work or the reader’s experience, but the inner message is always, “You are part of my life.”

The reader turns and departs. It’s unlikely that you two will meet again. But a loop has been closed and things seem different from they had been just moments before.
—Robert Grudin, Hearing the Audience, pp. 88-89, in The Soul of Creativity: Insights into the creative process, ed. by Tona Pearce Myers

It’s this kind of connection, this after the fact of writing connection, that really matters. It is your third person, after your two good friends, that every poet needs: that third, genuine reader, who gets it, who understands what you wrote, who understands what you were trying to say in the way you saw it yourself.

That’s when the audience matters, not before then, but only then, and luminously, ecstatically then.

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