I recently read a post called, What Baking Taught Me about Writing and the analogy was quite sweet and satisfying until I got to the last bite: Learn to Please Your Audience.
She writes, “In order to please your literary audience, you must learn their wants, desires, and needs and write to that instead of composing whatever crosses your brain. Selfish writers never changed anyone’s life.”
What?! Me, selfish? A blogger blogging about me? 😛
Okay. Sure. I get her baker’s confection. But I also think this is bad advice regardless of what you are cookin’ in the oven. I mean, am I crazy? (Don’t answer that.)
In an effort to understand her point of view, I thought, maybe this depends on what kind of writing you are doing, and for what purpose. Journalism? Fiction? Advertising? But aren’t the best journalists the ones who are groundbreaking, going beyond what is expected, and taking risks?
Then I thought about the business idea: anticipate what the audience/customer needs and wants before they even know they need it. Extremely successful companies are built around this principle. Or they tackle a niche that previously went unnoticed. Sooo…
In Andrew Stanton’s TED talk: The clues to a great story, he shares how he and his gang didn’t want to create an animation firm the way it had been previously done (ala Disney), so they set up rules like “No songs.” “No happy village.” “No love story!” in order to prove that animation could be done in a new way (ala Pixar). Hello, success!
Sometimes an audience won’t even know what makes a great story. They just know that they like it. They are surprised, taken somewhere, some place over there, special, crazy, pedestrian but underground, and if I’m too distracted trying to please you, I might end up doing the exact opposite.
You know, I wasn’t going to write this but her response to my comment got me thinking and thinking. It went against what I believed to be true. And then I found Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys’ blog. He’s a fiction writer and I am not, so when I read this, I felt validated.
The important distinction is when you are in the act of creating, writing, focusing on your craft, I don’t think you should be thinking about the desires and wants of the audience.This kills creativity, fosters confusion and probably makes you doubt what your inner voice is telling you. Now later, when you need fresh eyes for the editing or feedback, sure, bring those colleagues and friends in to the fold.
But egats, you can’t even interview what people want, because usually they just tell what they think you want to hear!
I called a friend who is a digital artist, and told him what I was thinking, just to make sure I wasn’t getting excited for no reason. I needed perspective. He shared: Van Gogh was not popular during his time, he was doing something that was different than mainstream. He couldn’t even really draw very well. But he used colors in a new way. Now everyone knows who Van Gogh is.
If Van Gogh did what his audience wanted, he probably would have worked hard to fit in, ‘draw better’ and paint in the style that everyone liked and understood.
Does this mean the audience is evil? No, of course not. But I think you should write down whatever crisscrosses you mind. You should go with your flash in a pan intuition. This is the rockier, often forgotten, but ultimately more rewarding road.
Sometimes we write, sing, and draw uncomfortable things, difficult to swallow moments that need to be lifted off our chests. The cliche ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ is a cliche for good reason.
When I wrote about my Waldorf teaching experience, I did it because I needed to. I needed to dissect it, stare at it, let it go, and because I thought my story had value and should be shared. As I wrote, it was important to bring to the situation an, as objective a point of view as possible, and yes, I thought about what folks would want to know about the circumstances around my firing.
However, I’m not interested in people pleasing for the sake of a bigger audience. And because of the controversial nature of Waldorf education, it would be easy to sally over to the anti-Waldorfers and gain their adoration, but that’s not what my story is about. I want readers to make up their own minds, and I don’t mind if we disagree.
What I’ve found through sharing my experience is my story has value for others too. They’ve emailed me long emails telling me their stories. It’s been amazing! I think this is how it’s supposed to work. I don’t think writing whatever crisscrosses my mind makes me selfish.
I come from a working class family that sees what I do as a waste of time and energy, better spend at a comfortable and safe job. They love me and I love them, and I understand that. But when I was unemployed, using my time to write, I was considered lazy.
Anyone who is engaged in creating, and writing knows, it’s anything but lazy work.
No, I don’t mind criticism. I don’t mind hitting delete. I don’t mind changing what I write for the sake of clarity or because the audience wants to know more about this or that part of the story. I’ve learned this is actually the worthwhile part of editing and feedback.
I don’t know. Maybe by learning what your audience wants and needs, you make more money. Maybe you gain more fans. Maybe you learn to do it better. Maybe I’m wrong. And maybe I’ll write a book called The Selfish Writer and change the world…