MONTPELIER, VERMONT — “Who is your audience?” Ah, the age-old question. Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Larry Sutin said in his lecture here at our MFA in Writing residency that he hears that question asked all the time, adding with his usual dry wit, “enough times that it must be a very important question.” But Sutin said he has never been able to answer it himself.
To him, imagining an audience for his work while writing is problematic. “I am hoping to be admired by people in my own head, which distracts me from my true mission,” which is to write well, he said. “I’d love readers to leave hot croissants and coffee on my doorstep every morning,” said Sutin, a multi-published author in both fiction and CNF. But he doesn’t write to be liked, he writes to be read. So when he writes, he writes to a solitary reader. Himself.
Writing is communication, Sutin said, and he wants to make sure his writing is clear to his reader. That reader is demanding, constantly questioning Sutin’s choices as a writer. If Sutin feels he has satisfied that reader, he hopes it means other readers will be satisfied as well.
I should interject at this point that Sutin is not describing writing as some sort of vanity enterprise, where you entertain yourself with your winning ways and assume everyone else will embrace your quirks. Far from it. He went on an extended discourse about how we cannot assume our readers know what we know. Thus, our reader–us–must ask the writer–us again–all of the tough questions we would expect of any reader.
As I listened to the latest stunning lecture from Sutin–please enjoy last winter’s defense of excessive detail–I realized that in the curriculum of my course on blogging as creative writing, I instruct would-be bloggers to identify their audience. It is essential, I tell my students, to know who you are writing to, and to tailor your writing to that audience.
But I now realize that I don’t really do that myself, not narrowly anyway. I have won awards given to writing blogs, so I try to include posts (like this one) on the craft of writing. The conceit of my blog is the challenges and rewards of an art-committed life, so I write about what that means to me. But, in reality, I write about whatever I am curious about at the time. That formula shouldn’t work. Yet when I asked readers recently in what respects I should narrow the focus of my blog, the answer was consistent–keep up the variety.
I don’t think I will radically change my course curriculum. There are literally billions of people on the Internet; you can’t blog to all of them, just as you can’t write creatively for all of them. But perhaps if you blog to a solitary reader rather than an audience–a demanding reader, one who expects the best of you, whatever your topic–the resulting prose will resonate with more readers, and soon enough you’ll have that audience.
There are so many more gems from Sutin’s lecture that I simply can’t fit in this post, but let me add that he said the best way to make sure you grow as a writer and as a reader is to read. Examine what other writers are doing. See how their techniques work for you. Bring your reader’s eye to other writers’ works, then to your own. Sutin didn’t go so far as to say books and essays on craft are of no use; instead, he seemed to suggest you can create your own craft lessons simply by reading more. Message received.