Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Who do we write for?
I remember one man in particular, an older guy who participated in a class I was in about two years ago. He was writing historical fiction. He seemed to believe that adjectives and adverbs were a substitute for nouns and verbs, and that pages upon pages of scenery description should precede every action. His work was tedious, heavy-handed, and difficult to read/understand.
This was almost universally commented upon by the class. "Cut back on the adjectives/adverbs," we told him. "Description is not a substitute for character or plot." He was very resistant to our feedback. (Naturally, he was also the kind of guy who would eviscerate other people's work without a second thought.) Finally, he said to us, "Well, I don't think I'm going to change anything. This is my style and I like it like that."
Which, given that this guy was a jerk and had blatantly disregarded everyone's critiques of his work--while scornfully cutting others to pieces--I said, with no small amount of disdain, "Well, then, if you don't want to revise your work based on other people's feedback, why are you even in this class?"
The guy, as I said, was a jerk. He was snobbish and condescending, and he took the class because he wanted everyone to fawn all over him. But the argument itself brings up an interesting question: who do we write for, ourselves or the audience?
Everyone who writes does so, first and foremost, for themselves. I mean, we wouldn't do it if we didn't like it. And if that's the extent of it, and you have no further interst than keeping your writing stored away in your sock drawer, than good for you. But my belief is that, for people who want to be published, you have to take what other people think and react into consideration.
A few years ago, I interviewed Charlie Kaufman. I love his work. Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both of which he wrote, were awesome. He had just finished his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. He told me then that he hadn't screened the film with focus groups, believing that movies become more cliched and generic when they're subjected to more voices. Except, of all of Kaufman's work, I enjoyed Synedoche the least. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it didn't. I kept waiting for it to make sense, but it didn't. I felt like that kid who pointed out that the Emperor was, indeed, naked.
That said, other people aren't always right, either. I wrote a story once where there was a very violent scene at the beginning. I describe it in fairly graphic detail. When I read the story in a workshop, several people in the class advised me to take it out or tone it down. I didn't. The story is about a woman whose brother is a serial killer, and an act she watches him commit when she is a child haunts her for years; even after he is arrested, she believes that maybe she could have stopped him if only she had told someone what happened. To tone it down would be negating the point. The incident ravages her character. It stayed.
I think there's a happy medium here. You, as the author, know what story you're trying to tell. But at the same time, I think we get a myopic view of our own work. It's hard to see the inherent flaws and problems with our own stuff, because we're just too close to it. I know what I wanted to say. I like to use other people's feedback to judge how far I really am from that goal.
And sometimes, hearing feedback from other people can take you off in entirely new directions altogether. My just-finished novel draft actually started as a piece of flash fiction. When I brought it into the workshop to read, people bombarded me with questions about what the narrator acted the way she did and what was wrong with her. (In their defense, she kills a guy before the story even begins, so "What's wrong with her?" wasn't an unreasonable question.) At the time, I had no idea what was wrong with her, but my crazy brain started playing with it. The whole story started because I was trying to answer that one question. Crazy thing.