Audience is Everything

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I scanned a few poems in a 2006 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review and I know now that I’ll not ever really be that kind of poet. I can’t right now. I’ve lost my fearlessness. There are subjects I won’t touch, and I suspect it’s the mother/daughter/sister in me that keeps me from the hard edge of things. Maybe.

Alan Shapiro’s piece in the VQR about his suicidal son is an excellent example. He writes honestly and the whole piece is in fact a father’s panic. But there it is in the VQR, after all, an essay typed up, refined, rewritten, sent in an envelope with a cover letter for possible publication, and the part of his brain that wrote and rewrote and mailed it actually had no trouble with the father part of his brain that witnessed his son’s anguishing moments. He has no trouble converging personal tragedy and marketable commodity. Maybe he thought of it as a gateway for others to understand their own parallel experiences. Maybe. If that were so, the piece would have been sent somewhere besides the Virginia Quarterly Review. I actually see this as an ethical problem. I’ll have to think more on that.

Where does that come from? When my mother made me throw out the journals she’d found buried in my secret jeans drawer, was it a heavier weight than I realized at fourteen? Maybe it’s taken me thirty years to hear the real message in that afternoon – words can hurt, so be careful what you write. It’s the lesson learned in Harriet the Spy, really. I should read that again.

Over the years that afternoon has protected my writing with an easy-to-swallow coating and made me constantly aware of a disapproving audience lurking out there, ready to pounce.

Audience is everything.

It never occurred to me that I must be published to be a poet until I began teaching at a university, which is ironic since one of the darlings of the writing department is the National Writing Project. The NWP is a haven of scribbling that insists you are a writer if you write. Period. They’ve made almost a religion by throwing tent revival summer institutes where tired public schools teachers raise their lives to the ecstasy of finally having something to say and the opportunity to say it on paper. I know because I’ve spoken in tongues with them for seven years. The Writing department loves it for the grant money and the exposure and the fine ideals, but the unarticulated truth is they understand those thrilled public school converts are only teachers, not really writers. If they were really writers they’d have PHDs, teach at fine universities, and be published. Oh my.

The university is, after all, a machine we feed with published words – our proof. Despite any high talk we are all invisible wanna-bes if not publishing, even though the words constantly stream on the page and I am everyday a writer.

To sustain that little publishing voice, the one that insists every piece I write can or must be publishable, is to suspend a highly critical audience in my head, and the audience has my mother’s horrified face telling me to throw out the words, and the raised eyebrow astonishment of some colleagues who, wearing their PHDs from everywhere and nowhere are openly surprised an emergency hire, ex-high school teacher actually writes anything at all.

So the writing becomes smaller, and I’m suddenly aware I have the wrong audience in my head. That ghost audience has to go away so my writing can take chances and believe itself again.

The bottom line is that all our lives we are collecting audience, and some of them simply shouldn’t be there. I can sit here at the page wondering if it would be different if I were a man, or childless, or an orphan, or could wear a PHD like some once meaningful football jersey number, proof I’d been an intellectual quarterback on some winning Big Ten team. The censuring and disbelieving voices are really rattling away in my head. It’s much worse than that – they’re listening. I’ve gathered an unfriendly audience of silent readers and allowed them to sprawl on all the furniture in my head. They put their feet on the coffee table and leave empty bottles everywhere. It all muddies up my writing and I suspect it’s time to clean house.

The best and bravest writing I’ve done in my life birthed through a mountain of emails to and from a small group of writing women I never met. They were all of them stunning writers. Stunning. I didn’t have to shop at the grocery store with them or wonder if they knew anyone I knew. Those gals were intimately anonymous, and we all wrote fearless, intensely guttural pieces. It was the perfect girls’ night out of writing. Looking back, I realize now we were taking enormous personal and literary chances every single day, and the writing was very nearly perfect. All of it, because we were the best possible audience. It lasted about four years and then one by one we fell off into our busy lives. I miss us, but more importantly I miss the freedom we gave each other as writers and readers. Their disembodied collection took up all the chairs in the jury box and there was no room for the doubters or the disapproving in my head.

Ultimately it’s about who I let in as audience. If I make invitation to the negative, that kind of jury will simply walk right in, set themselves up in uncomfortable highback chairs, and squirm like unhappy toads while I feverishly try to please the unpleasable lot of them. Even now as I write this I’m aware I’m trying to be a Very Good Girl, so I have work to do.

I’ll just keep on writing as if I were actually a writer.

5 thoughts on “Audience is Everything

  1. What I struggle with is a writer is how much do I push that edge (because I really want to push it), how much to I let my voice shine through with honesty and vulnerability and poignancy, and not hurt myself in the long run. I want to be a public school teacher, after all, and who’s going to hire Mr. Sisk when he has gay love poems published in an online literary journal? So, I keep my defenses up, and only reveal a little bit of myself in poetry writing class, even though I want to blow them away with more, because, I mean, I’m the one who has to live with what I write, what I put out there.I’m working on being braver and freer, though. Just can’t shake the sense of urgent practicality growing up poor in Mississippi has taught me.

  2. You’re right. Once you decide to throw your hat in the public education ring it makes a difference. Those years I was a schoolmarm were terrribly private poetry years. You don’t have to give up your voice, but somewhere between second period and luch duty your voice changes. Hey, I still lower my lit cigarette when driving past the high school. That need to be above reproach is still strong. I even have an agreement with another old schoolmarm that the minute after either one of us dies, the other has to blow up the deceased’s computer. We do have to live with what we write. That’s just all there is to it.

  3. Oh Monda, did I just feel the kick of a dying horse, that somewhat hurt! am actually new to your blog and you wont believe it when you learn that am actually African and Ugandan for that matter. Am an aspiring writer and poet and as you've already guessed not published but am not scared of the criticism out there, actually I feel there is a mentor in you unless you say otherwise. True that the stuff we write could be re -written to make it marketable and I know this is dependent upon the audience we should care to please, but that doesn't mean we should slow. Am thinking the audience's thirst would be so had to quench if fed with the same or similar/overused material every now and then. I bet that there is the catch, “come up with something totally different” something that could take the audience by surprise and creep upon the publisher unawares such that they have no choice but to preserve the original beauty therein. Say, let us(me and you) embark on a writing initiative from the depth of Africa! Yes ..your audience needs the adventure, its bored of the same phrases, humor,irony and whatever … Africa has got a lot to offer(no wonder Hollywood is turning to her)I think its about what you poach for the audience.I will intimate a paradox to you; “many Africans love the west and actually strive to do anything to get there! at the visa granting consulates however questions like( how much of your own country do you know) are answered with ignorance. It gives me a clue that people generally are explorers, interested in knowing what the other side of the world has got to offer. Whenever I seen the numerous tourists visiting my country, for the falls, rivers, forests, animals etc I wonder what their drive is because there are actually similar things in back home! some even end up visiting empty parks in seasons when the game migrates! so what is their drive? (adventure) cause?(boredom)We have a saying in our Culture, “he who has not traveled thinks of the mother as the best cook” since the majority audience is kind of Lazy to come down here and else where, lets do the travelling for them and bring it to them or else they are gonna wake up one day and do the travelling themselves .. and guess what we have, “no audience at all” Believe me Monda once you're published the younger audience more inclined to travel will agree or get inspiration while the older and more conservative audience will sit back in their rockers and imagine with renewed desire and enthusiasm. Who do you have left for critics the middle age and I bet you can handle that group; its two votes to one and the rules are winner takes all. Come on Monda give it a shot! Let us combine minds and stories, piece them together and keep the audience suspended for a season or forever. Its time to give them your THRILLER. Remember time is of the essence .. so let me know ASAP

  4. not a writer but can't stop writing never published never seen but still i need to express myself. larege unread blog whatever anyone thinks is so secondary to the need to get it out.unconditionallovealwayswins.blogspot.com

  5. If you're writing and popping it up on a blog (or anywhere else, for that matter) you're a writer. Keep on slamming the keyboard, Love Always Wins!

    (Because it does.)

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