“‘I remember years ago watching the commercial folktale-tellers in a Cairo bazaar. All writers ought to have observed this ancient practice of oral narrative — all critics likewise. Getting the audience, I remarked, depended not at all on preaching and philosophizing but very much on baser tricks of the trade: in short, on pleasing, wooing, luring the listeners into the palm of one’s hand.'” –John Fowles (via Ted Kooser)
This is from Kooser’s book on writing poetry titled The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Probably one of the most discussed ideas in poetry and in writing in general is that of the reader. How much say does the reader have on a certain piece of art? Does a reader (usually an ideal reader) need to shape the writing, or is artistic integrity (whatever that means) more important than pleasing a certain population?
For one, it depends on the type of writing you are doing. Obviously, a piece of journalism needs to fit the reader of the magazine or newspaper – otherwise, it will a) stick out next to the tone and topics of the other pieces, and b) cause people to skip over your article. Some writers would be fine with that; I don’t think magazine editors are quite as fine with giving writers about whom their readers could care less space in their limited pages.
Poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction is slightly different. Especially poetry – people tend to simply write what they feel needs to be said, often just obeying their own mind and heart without much regard to the reader. Some writers function this way quite effectively, but, as Kooser mentions, most poets need to start out with a great sense of their reader. You can be as opaque as you wish once you are a well-established poet, but often poetry needs to be accessible to a certain population of people in order to make one well-established.
It’s a hard line to toe, because on the one hand, you want to be able to create freely and without limitations. On the other, in order to become a professional, there must be limitations. There are line limits, word counts, and content suggestions made by editors that cannot be ignored. So, then, the balance: write for the type of people you want to read your work. Write to please them, but only so much as you please yourself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with simply writing things for yourself, but you cannot expect others to necessarily enjoy it unless you have thought about them and their responses to your work.
This may seem to take the passion and heart out of poetry in general, but I think of it simply as another element to the craft. It’s important, as important as line breaks and sound phrases.
Speaking of readers, I’m going to be writing a piece here in the next few weeks that has a very specific reader. There’s a contest author Donald Miller is doing about living a better story, with the winner getting flown to Portland for his conference this fall. I’m hoping a selling point for me is the lack of airfare necessary to get me to Portland. Unless he wants to hire a bitty plane to fly me from Newberg to Portland…I wouldn’t say no to that (or maybe I would…). Anyway, it’s a fun challenge to do something specific. Plus, I would love to go to this conference!