Last month I wrote about the importance of dismissing the audience for the sake of creating a safe, private space where we can take creative risks. The corollary to this, equally valuable, is that for writing to flourish we must at some point welcome the audience. If a writer only considers the self the primary audience, the work becomes solipsistic and sloppy. Our own minds, however bright, are only so big; our own lives, however expansive, are inevitably limited. When we write solely for ourselves, as we do in a private journal, we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess. Unedited journals almost never get published for this reason; there’s simply too much shlock for most readers.
If we never consider an audience as we write, our work’s growth remains stunted. The discipline of considering the reader is absolutely necessary to the development of creative work. All art is essentially dialogue—between the artist and the viewer, between the artist and all artists who have come before, and between the artist and society. The artist’s awareness of this conversation is what launches a work from the private realm into the public. In literature, it’s this awareness that helps a writer identify the universal elements in the particulars of his or her narrative. By setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans. We remove ourselves from isolation and participate in community.
I believe the best time to welcome the audience into our writing process is after the first or second draft, after we’ve searched for the heart of our work and risked exposing some truth. Gradually, as we move through the drafts, we can begin to ask questions that might open our story to external readers: Have I introduced my characters, my setting, my questions thoroughly? Why might an anonymous reader be interested in this work? How might I capture his or her attention and raise the stakes? How might I make my experience (or my character’s experience) available to the reader, so he or she is a participant rather than an observer? What in my story touches the human experience, that cord of connection we all share?
Every spiritual journey worth its salt brings the journeyer back into community, where the fruits of solitude can provide nourishment beyond the bounds of one individual life. Likewise with creative practice; what’s born in privacy gains texture and merit by moving into the public realm. The craft of writing well is really a rigorous discipline through which we open our internal world to another, or to the Other. This, I believe, is essentially what revision is about—seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew