If my underwear ever had holes in it or the elastic stretched out or the fabric was stained, my mother would say, “What if you had some accident and wound up in the hospital? What would people think?”
So absurd! Who in any emergency would really care?
But because of this conditioning or my natural proclivity (I remember dancing ballet on a low tiled coffee table within sight of our open front door as a kid, hoping someone would drive by, be awed, and whisk me off to join the New York City Ballet) or because this is an ordinary human tendency, I arrived in adulthood with my attention well-honed toward others’ attention. It especially has haunted my writing, where awareness of an audience can invade even the most private journal pages. I’m as good as the next writer at leaping from rough draft to imagined New York Times review fame, or for that matter obscure distain. Dealing with my thoughts about what others will think is an ongoing, daily artistic struggle.
Over the years, though, I’ve noticed that my capacity for originality, vulnerability, and connectivity in writing largely depends on my ability to put audience aside, at least early on in a project. All sorts of literary skills can move a reader, but I’m increasingly convinced that one of the most basic and needful is the writer’s capacity to create a deeply private psychic space, what I like to describe as a “cloud of privacy, permission, and unknowing.” I’ve written about this in an earlier blog as “dismissing the audience.” Robert Frost wrote, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” And Strunk and White say, “Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.” Over the years I’ve honed this skill, carrying my “cloud” through a project much like Winnie the Pooh, entering it periodically to assess why and how the project moves my heart. I’ve learned to turn off thoughts of what others would think, and that’s brought me many gifts.
Recently, however, as I’ve been diving into contemplative prayer, I’m aware that even an audience of one may be one too many. The self that is vigilant in me is also my monkey mind, and my spiritual practice involves releasing this self again and again. What if the self of my most intimate writing isn’t my real self? What if the true audience is no audience? What if there’s a means of communication that involves no self and no other but rather the ultimate Self and the ultimate Other?
At this point the questions are hypothetical. But I sense a trajectory in my journey as a woman and writer, away from ridiculous self-consciousness toward chosen consciousness toward release from the tiresome workings of my mind. I’m immensely grateful for the freedom this journey has afforded me thus far.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
If you missed my latest newsletter with news of my forthcoming book, Living Revision, here’s the link.
Do you have a working draft and the desire to go deeper into a project? There’s still room for more participants in my week-long Alone Together retreat on Madeline Island from September 12-16.