So we're supposed to be ourselves when we write. But what about audience? If we're supposed to write as ourselves, are we writing to ourselves, too?
Well, no. Not exactly . . .
But also, kind of.
Stephen King tackles this topic in a story from his youth in On Writing. As often happens with high school students, one day during his sophomore year King found himself bored and decided to shake things up. Rather than edit the school newspaper, The Drum, he had the fabulous idea to create his own satiric newspaper, The Village Vomit. In it, he wrote fictional tidbits about the school's faculty using nicknames the student body would immediately recognize.
"As all sophomoric humorists must be," King says, "I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H. L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!"
As a matter of fact, his classmates did bust a collective gut. His teachers, on the other hand, did not. When The Vomit was discovered, King was given detention and then called into the school's guidance counselor's office. The faculty were concerned, the counselor said. This wasn't the first time King had pulled a stunt like this. Wasn't there a way he could channel his talent more constructively?
In this vein, the counselor suggested King contact John Gould, the editor of Lisbon’s weekly newspaper. Gould had an opening for a sports reporter, and, "While the school couldn’t insist that [King] take this job, everyone in the front office felt it would be a good idea . . ." (55).
King knew nothing about sports, but he took the job. His first article was covering a basketball game, and from Gould's feedback, he was surprised to learn more about writing in ten minutes than he had in all of his high school English classes. Gould combed through his first story with a black pen, crossing out everything that didn't need to be there (i.e. clutter). “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” Gould explained. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Gould told him something else important that day, too:
"Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky . . . more will want to do the former than the latter."
Gould's advice, though worded differently, is entirely in line with William Zinsser's advice is On Writing Well.
"In terms of craft, there's no excuse for losing readers through sloppy worksmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article because you've been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. [Rewrite with the door open.] But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor, or your vision of life, don't give him a moment's worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and you'll either get along or you won't. [Write with the door closed.] "
In other words, stop pandering! Be who you are unequivocally. Sure, you must think your arguments through, and puh-lease, cut everything that doesn't need to be there (clutter). But when it comes to the meat of what you write, write for you.
What's more, in writing for yourself, you might succeed in garnering the attention of important topics from folks completely unlike yourself. Take, for example, this excerpt from How to Survive in Your Native Land, a book by James Herndon describing his experiences as a teacher in a California junior high school. Even if you've never worked in public education and never plan to, Herndon's voice elicits attention and rings true:
I might as well begin with Piston. Piston was, as a matter of description, a red-headed medium-sized chubby eight-grader; his definitive characteristic was, however, stubbornness. Without going into a lot of detail, it became clear right away that what Piston didn't want to do, Piston didn't do; what Piston wanted to do, Piston did . . .
I've never worked in a junior high school setting, but only three sentences in I can feel for Herndon and imagine what it must be like working with Piston. I hope never to work with eighth graders (oh, the hormones!), but I'm already interested enough to keep reading. Similarly, if I've done a good job with this post, you're still reading this post. Writing isn't everyone's calling, but it is an important mode of communicating our thoughts, and, done well, has more staying power over the centuries than all of our other modes of communication combined.