Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Who Do You Write For?"

Actually, it’s “Whom do you write for?” just so you know I know, but “Who do you write for?” is the question that was asked at a panel discussion I attended not long ago. It’s the asker’s mistake. I’m merely being accurate in my reporting.


Isn’t that what writers say when they’re quoting something whomever they’re interviewing said incorrectly? I have no idea what it means. It’s probably Latin. What it means in English is, “Don’t blame me. I’m just taking it down.”

Okay, so there was this panel discussion on the subject of opinion writing. The panelists involved wrote columns of one type or another, and since that’s what I do sometimes – my very first writing job was a weekly opinion column in a Toronto newspaper – I was interested in what these guys had to say.

I had that newspaper job for two years. When I started, the editor asked me who I wanted to be, as if writing as me wasn’t an option, or at least not a good idea. For two years, I wrote under a pseudonym I’d had rattling around in my head – Percy Neeps. Echoing Sixties jargon, and also reflecting my questionable eyesight, my column was labeled Where’s It’s Near.

Anyway, the first question the column writers on that panel were asked was the aforementioned, “Who do you write for?” The answers divided the columnists, more or less, into two camps: “I write for the readers” and “I write for myself.”

One panel member was my daughter Anna’s friend, a delightful and smart writer named Stacey. Stacey responded, rather courageously, I thought: “I write for myself.” Courageously, because there was a substantial audience sitting there, who might have felt that Stacey’s answer placed them in a downgraded second position, or maybe in no position at all, as in, “I write for myself, and you’re just there, you Bozos!”

This seems a precarious strategy for endearing yourself to potential buyers of your books and readers of your column. But there you have it. Maybe the courage was a selling point. “I speet in your eye and you take eet.”

Who knows?

So, okay, you’re sitting in the audience, and you’re not on the panel, and maybe you’d like to be, until they start discussing “What’s funny?” and then you’re thrilled you’re not on the panel, or at least less disappointed, but still, there’s that question, “Who do you write for?” and its reverberating implications.

“Are you, like, an “I’m all there is” narcissist, who writes exclusively for yourself and the readers can go fly a kite? Or are you a caring communicator, driven to reach out and share your wisdom with the world and perhaps change lives?

Of course, there’s stuff in the middle, but extremes are more interesting, so let’s start with them.

“I write for myself.”

What exactly does that mean? I write because I need to write and the only way to satisfy that need to write is by writing? If you put it that way, I write for myself. It feels good when I write. It’s, like, there’s nothing on the page, and then, there’s something. And I put it there. Sometimes, the stuff you put there is no good. But sometimes, it’s, like, “Look at that!”

I surprise myself with what I write, and that makes me smile broadly. And sometimes, if it’s exceptional, you enjoy that exhilarating, possibly inappropriate, ego charge of “Only me!” as in, “I’m the only one who could have written this!” It’s a silly response, but there it is.

The process of writing – the doing of it – makes me feel useful and productive. After exiting paying employment, I didn’t write for a while. I was punishing the world by withholding my greatness. But, ultimately, it didn’t feel so good. Almost imperceptibly, I was being incorporated into the ranks of “household furniture”, a floor lamp that took extended, afternoon naps.

Aside from enjoying the process, writing, as in this very post, helps me discover, after a thorough going-over of the subject, where I stand. I quoted this line before. “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?” Replace “hear what I say” with “see what I write” and it’s exactly the same deal.

I am additionally interested in getting my thoughts in writing in case my “Life Lottery” arrow stops at “Memory-Erasing Dementia”, where my mother is currently a big-time winner. I have a lot of stories, and if my brain at some point refuses to pull them up, I want those “story files” backed up somewhere, so they don’t disappear.

I don’t know about you, but I have some family photographs of my great grandparents, and I don’t know anything about them, including their names. That sucks, doesn’t it? For me, because there’s this loss, but especially for them.

“I didn’t get out of Russia so you could forget who I am.”

That’s why I continually drill my kids on the names of the people in the pictures I remember. It’s also why I write down these stories. This point’s not entirely, “I write for myself”, it’s also “Some day they might want to know.” But it’s primarily, “I write for myself”, because it’s, “Some day, they’re might want to know about me.”

I think that exhausts, “I write for myself” – creative satisfaction, feeling useful, and laying down some indelible tracks.


“I write for the readers.”

I also do that.

If I only wrote for myself, I wouldn’t have to write at all. I could just think the things, and then go watch a ballgame. No need for any actual stenography.

But that’s clearly not what it’s totally about.

I’m excited to tell you my stories. I want to tell you my ideas. I know the stories are personal, but “personal” has the word “person” in it, and since you’re “persons” too, I’m hoping you’ll identify. “Connecting” makes all the difference. Otherwise, it’s just “stuff that happened to me.”

Sometimes, I write as a reality check. “Am I crazy, or do you feel this way too, or at least understand how I could?” Sometimes, I want to encourage you to, “Take a moment to think about this, even though you’ve already made up your mind.” Sometimes, I just want to tell you this:

“I’m a mess in many ways, and I did fine. You don’t have to be perfect to succeed.”

I also seem to need to tell people that, when it comes to success or failure or somewhere in between, it’s not totally them. Timing and luck have an enormous amount to do with how things turn out. So if you made it, be humble, and if you’d didn’t, give yourself a break.

Also, when you're working on a show and things get hard, it may not be you, it may just be hard. People don't talk about these things. I think they're worth knowing. And passing along.

Then, there’s that informational stuff some readers seem interested in. The process – how shows are put together. That’s really not for me. I’d say, “You sit there and you do it.” But people are curious to know more. And I do my best to accommodate them.

Occasional commenters have mentioned that this blog has…well, they read it regularly, and they enjoy it. Don’t ever think that doesn’t matter to me. That’s my nourishment. That’s my fuel.

This may sound like another aspect of “I do it for me”, because it relates to the satisfaction I derive, but apparently, others are deriving satisfaction from it as well, so it’s not just for me.

I’m excited that you’re out there, and I hope it shows in the work.


Who’s the first guy to read this stuff? Me. Who determines what to leave in and what to change or leave out? Me. Who decides if something’s funny? Me. How do I decide? When I laugh, it’s funny, and when I don’t laugh, it isn’t. Who doesn’t let it go until he’s completely satisfied? Me.

I am the guinea pig. I’m the Test Audience. I’m the person I have to please. And I am – when I’m not being paid and, ideally, when I am – the Final Word. When it comes to content, taste and judgment, I write for myself. But if you didn’t matter, and I mean in the powerful and meaningful way, I would never click "Publish Now".

So that’s where I come out.

I write to satisfy myself. But I’m delighted if it also satisfies others.

Ship it.


Anonymous said...

It’s always interesting. Earl, to follow the logic of your thought process. Your reason often works in ways that would never occur to me.

Nevertheless, that said, I’m commenting for myself, not for you or the other readers. No offense.

Anonymous said...

Okay, that first period was supposed to be a comma. I need bifocals. And I need to routinely use the preview function.

(And, obviously, I wrote this comment for others, not for myself.)

Anonymous said...

"I write to satisfy myself. But I’m delighted if it also satisfies others."

It does.

C. Miller

Andrew Sherman said...

I read your blog and I enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Your posts are great. How many re-writes do you do before you hit publish? Or are you so accustomed to writing on deadline that you can crank out a blog entry in one take? Keep up the great work. BTW--I suspect you could go back and sue the camp for the hanging incident and settle for millions. Skip a trial. It would end in a hung jury.