Years ago a writing class assignment asked who does a writer write for, themselves or readers. It questioned if I agreed with William Zinsser that “not worry too much about how your audience feels.” I wasn’t sure of my answer as I took the class to learn to write decently. I knew zilch about the craft of writing.
It was an optional assignment taught by the most terrible teacher, who hated me from the get-go. I completed the assignment to get into her good graces. So, I straddled both sides. Don’t care about the reader as that will force you to change your writing; care about the reader otherwise who the heck will read your piece. Of course, my effort didn’t impress my instructor, in fact, she was even ruder to me. But the question stayed with me.
Who do I write for? Should I care how my audience feels? Should I modify my writing to please my readers?
Over the years I find that the answers are not black or white. That there is ambiguity. I write for me because it makes me happy to see words take their own shape. And I kind-of write for the unknown audience. If there is no one to read my work, then I lose the momentum. Probably I am more selfish than other writers. But doesn’t every artist want to be heard and seen?
I should care about how my audience feels. If I don’t, then my writing hasn’t done its job. If I want to emote happiness but my audience feels sadness, then I have failed. But I can never alter my core being to please others, even in writing. I understand that leaves a possibility that my writing will never get published or the editors will tell me to change it to suit their publication.
That happened with my last two short fiction pieces. One is written entirely in dialogues, based in Mumbai exploring homosexuality. I wrote it to flush-out a character, who is the protagonist of my future novel. (Fingers crossed.) The other is a second person metaphor about struggles of learning to swim and write. It was concocted late at night when I was taking swimming classes. Somewhere, during multiple iterations, my memoir piece became dark comedy fiction.
These two are my favorite pieces. They are different from anything I have written. I trotted them everywhere. I read them in open-mics and critique groups. But alas, no one, not one person understood them. Probably I am the Mozart of writing, only to be appreciated gazillion years after my death.
But I am impatient and not afraid of rejection. So, I submitted it to place number one. They rejected without explanation. Place number two, send me critique from five strangers, who didn’t grasp the Indian location and characters and had NEVER read a second person narrative.
I simultaneously submitted it to place number three and four. Number three accepted one piece—the second person metaphor. But by the time, I finalized the editing process with them, my Picasso was turned into Van Gogh. I contemplated withdrawing the piece. But then, everyone tells me that being published is better than not being published. So, I smiled and thanked the editor as I posed for pictures. It is almost a year, and I still don’t have the courage to read the final published version. I was appreciative and thankful, but I was not happy.
Then on one beautiful day, I heard from the editors of Ursa Minor. They accepted both my pieces. They understood them. They loved them. They didn’t want to change them. They got my twisted mind. After minor editing, both my pieces were published. I smiled, happily drove to Berkeley for the launch party, and read them to the likeminded audience. It felt good.
This process made me realize that it is not necessary that my masterpieces will be liked and enjoyed by everyone. Most people don’t like me, nor understand me. I am okay with that. Similarly, I need to accept my place in the writing world. Mostly, I need to keep on writing whatever floats my boat.