I am sitting next to Bill Gates. We are in an auditorium getting ready for a launch presentation when he turns to me and asks, “Do you think writers have a responsibility to tell the whole story?”
I tell him that I think writers have a responsibility to be as honest as possible in their storytelling. But that doesn’t mean that they have to tell the whole story. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart. And that sometimes means you need to leave certain things out.
Who are you writing for?
That was the topic of a conversation I had with a friend recently. It’s an interesting question and we both came at it from a different vantage point.
As a fiction writer, he is concerned with the reader. With fiction, you have a lot of latitude when it comes to what you write, even if you are following a tried-and-true method that involves character development, plot, and conflict resolution. After all, you are making stuff up and whether that stuff comes from actual events in your life or your imagination, you can pretty much run with it. The fiction writer needs to be outer-directed, taking care to use his or her creativity to bring the reader along as the story unfolds. I think most writers would agree that is the right approach for fiction.
I mostly write non-fiction, so my writing practice is highly tuned to telling stories about science and technology that strive to make complex and often remote subjects interesting and understandable. It is almost always a learning exercise for me–something of a puzzle to solve. I learn a lot during this process and I usually get to talk to some incredibly smart and interesting people along the way. So clearly non-fiction is outer-directed too, because you are still concerned with keeping the reader with you. You want them to trust what you are saying, so you need to be credible, relevant, and clear. Your currency is the relay of information and facts. This kind of writing is what I call work.
But when I write in my journal the reader is me, which makes my writing there inner-directed and strictly personal. To me, it is an art form. And the kind of honesty that good art requires is hard to do, and even harder to share. Because it exposes you to strangers in a trusting way that says, “this is how I am experiencing the world, can you relate?”
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if it is a poem, a painting, or music. If you are just skimming the surface of an experience in your art it will either come across as phony, or even worse, dull. And if you spend too much time worrying about what other people think about your art, it will force you to change it in ways that will completely mess it up. So all you can really do is make your art and see what happens.
I enjoy many different styles of art and writing. I like seeing the different filters people use to manipulate reality, and I especially like to see how the imagination can soar. It is truly inspiring to me. But I don’t confuse my art with my work. And I usually know exactly whom I am writing for. At least I think I do.
So to answer the original question, I think the reader changes depending on the form the writing takes. What do you think?
Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.