I was asked what was the one thing I thought a student should take away from an introductory creative writing class? Writing is used for discovery.


Finding Audience and Developing Ideas

A key to our understanding how to engage the reader is to understand the relationship of writer and reader. When we make the move from writing for ourselves—for example, in a diary—to wanting to be read, we are talking about writing for an audience. Because writers hold the pen, we often don’t realize that the audience is an equal in the relationship of writer and reader. Because writing is hard, authors sometimes see themselves as the “actor” and the audience as “just the reader,” a passive recipient. That is not the case. Reading is action and volition. As easily as an author can pen a word, the audience can refuse to read it. So we must deal with this difficult but special relationship.

The author wants and the reader wants, and somewhere the two have to come to some kind of agreement, sometimes an uncomfortable agreement, about fulfilling both desires. We must arrive at common ground, and that is the work.

On some level, we have to respond to readers’ expectations. We have to give them what they want because we want them to feel satisfied. So, how do we know what an audience wants?

The answer is fairly easy, though it can sometimes prove elusive. They want the same thing we want as writers. They enjoy reading what we enjoy reading. They dislike what we dislike. They are no different than we are. They sometimes pick up books. Still, they get bored, disengaged, think about doing the laundry or taking a walk, just like us—but sometimes they pick up a book.

Our work evokes a world of constant and satisfying discovery. The writer, in researching, thinking, and writing, discovers something and the reader enjoys the crafted verisimilitude of that discovery—in the form of a book. You spent years researching and crafting your discovery, and your audience reads it in a few days, perhaps hours. What they save in time is what they pay for—and what is thrown into the bargain is your intelligence, passion, and unique perspective. But the relationship is a good one, hopefully, because we love what we’re doing (writing) and they love what they’re doing (reading). It’s symbiotic.

Discovery is a fancy way of saying we’ve come across new information. Readers read for information, and they don’t want old information, something they already know.

Still, let me class this new information into two types: the new information I, as reader, expect and the new information I can’t foresee—the kind that changes me either by expanding my range as an emotional instrument or by changing my vision of the world—or both. This second type of new information teaches me something about the human condition either through insight or by changing my paradigm. It is important to realize that the writer is trying to do two things, convey information about a subject but also speak to this larger concern, to create an environment in which things have changed. We’ve returned to discovery.

I bring this up because there is a place on the bookshelves for work that covers a broad spectrum of concerns—that function primarily intellectually or emotionally. Since we know what readers want—and whether they know it or not, this is discovery—our entrance into finding an audience takes some shape. We need to give readers something new—on two levels: in the subject itself and on a grander level—responding to the reader’s desire for relevance.