Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Give and Take: The Relationship Between Author and Audience

Writing is sorta a pain in the ass. Minus the "sorta." Don't get me wrong, I love that I am a novelist. But I heard an adage once: Writers don't like writing. They like having written.

I get that some people actually love the act of writing. But that just reminds me of this quote by Bob Odenkirk (of Better Call Saul!):

"Whenever someone says, 'I love writing,' I always think, You probably suck at writing."

Before anyone jumps down Bob's (or my) throat, let's not pervert his meaning. I don't think he's saying you can't enjoy writing. Just that when it becomes a career, writing, like any job worth doing well in this life, is hard work. More often than not those who profess to "love writing" usually don't have to do it for, y'know, a living.

The single worst piece of advice I've ever gotten re: the craft of is "you have to write for you." Yeah. And good luck with that chapbook. The truth is writing is symbiotic, a give and take, an exchange vis a vis author and audience. One cannot exist without the other. Without the writer, obviously the audience has nothing to read (assuming we live in a fantasy world where every third person you meet isn't a writer), and, without the audience, the writer is that proverbial tree falling in the forest. Which might be fine if that tree didn't need to be watered with constant adoration.

I often think of Emily Dickinson, the quintessential "write for yourself" writer. Except Emily, despite securing a promise to destroy her work upon death, hedged her bets. Sickened with typhoid, she made no effort to burn her poems. Dickinson is an amazing talent, and as such, she knew, on some level, that her work must endure.

I don't write poetry, but I am keenly aware of the author's relationship with audience. Words like "contrived" and "formulaic" get a bad rap. All art is contrivance. And all writing must adhere to the rules of its genre (i.e., the formula). Our job as authors to is make those devices seem seamless. We are architects manifesting an illusion, "art" the root of "artifice."

I recently taught at the Kauai Writers Conference and one of the analogies I used to illustrate this point revolved around a favorite motif of mine: time-travel. Say we have a time machine, and unlike the Terminator series, with this machine you have to wear clothes. One of the keys to successful time-travel is you have to fit in. Remember that Star Trek episode written by the great Harlan Ellison? Kirk and Spock go back in time. They cover up Spock's pointy ears and wear dull brown suits because Starfleet yellow and blue would've blown their cover. That is audience. We are Kirk and Spock, sent back into the past, and we have to know the fashion of the era. Because if you wear a Viking helmet to a Roaring '20s party you are going to stand out like a ten-foot alien belting show tunes.

Listening to the audience--and giving that audience what it wants--does not a sellout one make (man, that was fun). Doing so is the trademark of being a pro. This doesn't mean we are spineless sponges, forever beholden to screen tests and demographics. The writer is still the one who gets to attend the party (in this instance, a flapper party, if we stick with the conceit). He or she just needs to dress accordingly. Because unless you are pillaging a village or playing fullback for a shitty NFL team, a Viking helmet is seldom a good look.

Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive, and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. He is the author of three books: Choice Cuts, Junkie Love, and Wake the Undertaker, and his latest mystery, LAMENTATION, is out October, 2014. Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.


Sue Coletta said...

Love your analogies, Joe. Great post!

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

Great post, Joe. It made me laugh and it made me think.

Crystal R, Martin said...

Bonus points for proper Star Trek references. ;)

Dr. Suzana E. Flores said...

Love this!

Joe Clifford said...

Ah, shucks. Thanks, all!

Unknown said...

Good stuff.

Dean K Miller said...

So it seems I must give up the Viking helmet. Sacrifices, indeed.

Sridhar Chandrasekaran said...

You have an interesting blog. thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts.

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