“You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.”
When I came upon these words in Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook, Elements of Style, I felt pleased as punch. For years I’ve tried to convince writing students to surround themselves with a safe, protective bubble as they draft projects and begin revising. We all know how concern for our audience can loom over our shoulders, pestering us with questions like “What will your mother think?” and “Who will give a rat’s ass about that?” and presuming judgments about the inadequacy of our language or ideas or even our very impulse to write. As soon as we allow that dreaded entity, “Audience”, into our writing room, we begin censoring and performing. We deny our brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge.
Say you’re able to give yourself permission in a first draft to be messy, heretical, revolutionary, stupid, and otherwise embarrassing. “A careful first draft is a failed first draft,” Patricia Hampl writes; say your first draft is successful. Your inclination may be to approach your second draft like Stephen King does: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” And while I agree in principle, I’ve found that even the initial stages of revision benefit from a general disregard of audience. How else can we ask the probing questions that will churn up more risky material? How else will we feel safe enough to identify that pulsing heartbeat? Often our real motivations for writing emerge after our material is on the page, and we need the freedom to be honest with ourselves without concern for our readers’ pleasure.
As every writer knows, it takes real will-power to set the future reader aside and “play to an audience of one.” Whether at the beginning of a project or well into revision, this practice is really about peeling away layers of deception to arrive at a core reality—one that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted, as Mark Twain is reported to have said. Our work needs us to be fully present, not distracted by what others will think. This is what gives the process of writing the quality of serious spiritual listening, and what invites us into our better selves.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew