on writing

The Evolutionary Circle of the Storyteller’s Audience

I did something recently that I never do: I let someone edit one of my stories. Don’t misunderstand: If I’m selling a piece, I’ll gladly work with an editor. Don’t like the ending? Consider it changed. Want every character’s name to be Roger? You got it. But this scenario was a little different. There was no money or publication on the line. This was just an acquaintance who wanted to take a stab at editing.

It did not go well. Almost every note met with a “that’s a choice, not a problem” response from me. That can be a warning signal indicating that a writer’s defenses are up and his or her mind is closed to constructive criticism, so I gave the matter a lot of thought. I didn’t feel defensive, but rather confident that the choices on the page were the right ones for those characters in that setting. My editor friend was simply not the right audience for this particular story.

Who was the right audience for that story? I don’t know. Who’s the right audience for any story? It’s a great question, and I’m glad I asked it. Our audience evolves as we do, and I suspect that the amorphous blob of readers and listeners whom we call our audience bunches up along our lives’ timelines at the following eight stages.

Your first audience was you, and I do mean you. No one escaped this first stage. Toddlers alone in their cribs tell themselves stories. I’m no child psychologist, but I get the impression that they do this to make sense of their days, manage their fears and expectations, and likely just to entertain themselves. A little one might weave an elaborate story about what tomorrow will be like, for example, starting with Mommy retrieving me from this awful crib and ending with Daddy’s good night kiss after a day filled with puppies and adventures.

Both toddlers and preschoolers add props to their personal storytelling, at which time we relabel the activity play. Watch a kid with a toy car, a Barbie, or even a stick and you’ll see what I mean. He or she will build an entire world around that toy, conjuring from thin air characters, plot, conflict, and resolution. The prop doesn’t change the audience, though: We’re still talking about an audience of one here.

Our second audience is our caregivers, which for the sake of brevity I’ll refer to as our parents. Our folks read us stories, which we then mimic in an effort to entertain our entertainers. These are our first stories that are recognizable as “stories” rather than “play,” and they mark the first time that we’ve tried to engage an audience other than ourselves. Our parents are our first external audiences, and unless they’re jerks they’re the first to offer validation and encouragement.

Some of us get more of that when we start writing for our third audience, our school teachers. Teachers are the first non-familial authority figures in many children’s lives, and as such their opinions carry tremendous weight. “What a wonderful story” might spark a love of writing, while “you can do better” may ensure that this third audience is the last audience that a kid ever tells a story. School both kills and nurtures writing passion, depending on what kind of feedback we receive. Of course there are factors in play other than supportive teachers. I can count on one hand my stories that received some kind of acknowledgement from a teacher, yet I hung in there.

Friends are our fourth audience. Whether it’s written stories that we share with our friends or elaborate tales (lies, mostly) that we tell each other, this is our first organic audience. Our friends are not ourselves, nor are they authority figures like parents or teachers who must listen to our stories. “Man, you ought to be a writer” or “tell that story about that time at the beach” is a new kind of acknowledgement that feels earned rather than obligatory. We all had that one friend who everybody listened to–a lucky few of us were that friend.

This is where the road really bifurcates. The few who survive the parents, teachers, and friends with both their spark and their confidence intact decide that it’s time to formalize this thing. It’s time to become a writer. For some this happens during adolescence, for others during retirement. Age is only a factor in that it might determine what you choose as your fifth audience: the peer group. This might take the form of a college-level creative writing class, a local writers’ group, or one of those pricey workshops.

Regardless, your new audience is fellow writers, and you will write to entertain them. The goal is always to please the audience, after all. Will you risk a Buford T. Justice reference in a roomful of grave graduate students emulating Raymond Carver? You might, but it’s more likely that you’ll write the sorts of stories that your group responds to. I remember submitting a story to a creative writing class that was run by a grad student. “It’s okay, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t really like this kind of story.” He then spent the next fifteen minutes reading the class his tale of Superman’s everyday life. I don’t really like that kind of story, so I guess the day was a wash.

Some writers never progress past the fifth audience. I imagine some lack confidence, and others are social writers. They enjoy sitting in a room together, offering and receiving feedback. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, by the way, but if you survive your writing program and care to move on it’s time for audience #6: editors.

Submitting stories for publication might seem like it’s all about that publication’s readers, and inevitably it is but for your purposes it isn’t. First you have to get out of the slush pile, the stack of unsolicited manuscripts vying for a few pages in said publication. The gatekeeper is an editor or his or her proxy. These people are your audience now. Working with audience number six means clearly understanding the magazine’s content, submission guidelines, and style guide. Your story must fit the shape of the machine that you are feeding it into. When you get out of the slush pile, be ready to rework that ending or whatever the editor wants.

While it’s rewarding when a story is accepted, appeasing the sixes can be a grind both physically and emotionally. You might choose to bypass submission in favor of self-publishing, or you might be wildly successful with your submissions. Either path leads to audience #7: total strangers who connect with your work. This is the big one, the one you’ve dreamed about since declaring yourself a writer. You’ll work to entertain this audience just like you did your parents, teachers, friends, peers, and editors. The unspoken contract between you and your audience of strangers will be something along the lines of “I won’t waste your time, and I’ll deliver roughly what you expect of me.” That doesn’t mean that you can’t stretch and experiment, mind you, but Maya Angelou didn’t publish much hardcore sci-fi porn. Much.

A few years might pass while you rack up tens of thousands of pages. Some of these stories will be “successful,” meaning that they found their way into print; others might be deemed “failures,” meaning that they didn’t. Eventually you’ll pick up one of these failures and reread it. You’ll laugh when you’re supposed to laugh. You’ll tear up at the moments that are supposed to make you a little teary. The characters and their dialogue ring true, the writing strong. To hell with failure–you wouldn’t change a word, you won’t change a word. This is exactly the story that you wished to tell.

It took a lifetime, but you’ve reached your eighth and final audience: yourself. Inevitably this is the only one that matters. We’re all just toddlers telling ourselves stories for no better reasons than to make sense of our days, manage our fears and expectations, and just to entertain ourselves. Congratulations, you’ve come full circle.

“Know your audience” is sound advice for any writer. Whether you’re entertaining friends, grade grubbing, or writing for hire, you’ll tailor your stories to suit your audience or you’ll likely fail in that arena. But when the lights go out at night, the only audience that remains is yourself. Write for that guy and you’ll never be a failure.


Categories: on writing

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