Thinking About Audience by Louise DeSalvo

January 4, 2010

So, when we write memoir, who are we writing for?  Ourselves? The people we’re writing about? An audience of two, ten, ten thousand, a hundred thousand?  “Who’s your audience?” is one of those questions that editors and writing teachers love to ask, a question, I think, that can send those of us writing our lives down the wrong path.

Consider this….In today’s New York Times, famed memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) is quoted as saying that, after the phenomenal success of that book, she found it hard to write her next book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage.  She says that when she was writing her earlier books, she wrote believing that very few people would read them.  But after the success of Eat, Pray, Love she became paralyzed by the thought of writing for the huge number of fans for her first book though in the end — at least according to this article — did write with her audience in mind.

Bad mistake.

Once, a student of mine told me that she was considering showing her work in progress to a member of her family.  “Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“I want them to see how what they did affected me.”

I warned her not to, telling her that writing about someone can never be a substitute for communicating with them.  “Tell them how what they did affected you,” I said.

“Oh no,” she said, I couldn’t do that.  That would be too hard.”

From the moment she showed her work to her family, she stopped being able to tell the truth, her truth.  From that moment on, her family was standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, at every word she wrote.

“What should I do?” she asked when her work ground to its predictable halt.

“Tell them you’ve abandoned the book, start writing, and never, ever show your work to your subject again.”

“That’s easy for you,” a student once told me when I offered this advice.  “Your parents are dead.”

But my father — the subject of all of my work, the subject of my current book-in-progress about my his experiences before and during World War II — wasn’t dead when I started writing my first memoir, Vertigo, where I describe his violence, how, once, he came at me with a knife and tried to kill me.  When I was writing that book, my father was very much alive and recovering from surgery in my house.  Each day when I went to my study to write, he asked me what I was writing about.  Each day I told him I was “in process” with a book about how I came to study Virginia Woolf — a partial truth, but not the whole truth, certainly.  Each day he wished me well.  Each day I went to my desk and wrote my truth about how his violence had affected me.

“Didn’t you feel like you were betraying him?  Didn’t you feel you were disloyal?” someone asked me once when I spoke about this publicly.

“No,” I answered.  “He did it.  Which meant I could write about it.”  I did not — do not — believe I owe those who have harmed me the protection of not speaking of what they did.  (After all, I wrote a memoir called Adultery about my husband — we’re still married).  If I feel any loyalty, it’s towards delineating my experience as accurately as memory permits, and making sure that what I remember is clearly my memory and not an objective account of my life.  (What’s objective anyway?)

So, now, to return to my subject, “Thinking About Audience.”  Who was I thinking about when I was writing that account of my father’s violence?  I wasn’t thinking about audience at all.  I was thinking about how to make the scene as vivid as possible.  And perhaps it’s not even accurate to say “I was thinking about….”  I was lost in the work, lost in the words of the work, reading it, rereading it, rewriting it, reading it, rereading it, and rewriting it again.  So if there was any audience involved in the process, it was my other writer self, the writer self who reads the work the writer writes.  There’s the writer who writes, and then there’s the writer who reads what the writer writes.  That second writer self senses, knows, thinks that there’s more to say, better language to use, mistakes to correct, and so on.

That second writer self is the only audience I allow into my writing room.  Not my parents.  Not any of the people I write about.  Not any of the readers who may have read my work in the past.  If you write thinking about your readers, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests she did, you’re bound to repeat yourself, to write what you thin your readers want you to write, to write the dumbed down version of the hard story that you write for yourself the writer and your reader/writing self.

When you go into your writing space, go into it alone.  The truth you find there will be hard-earned, and only you will know when you’ve found it.  If you think about anyone else, you’ll never strike gold.


2 Responses to “Thinking About Audience by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Rosalyn Will Says:

    This is very valuable for any aspiring — or even somewhat experienced — writer to read and ponder. Because I’m hoping very soon now to self-publish Chrysalis, A Memoir, My Life Beyond the Cage of Scoliosis, I have been thinking a lot about “audience.” I used to feel, and still hope, that people with scoliosis either themselves or in the family would pick up this book. But how thrilled I would be if many folks just sat down with it for a good read.

    I feel strongly that when a reader immerses her or his self in a developing narrative about how the writer struggles, copes, manages to grow against odds, the book may strengthen and perhaps inspire that reader not to give up. There should be a fairly large audience for that. But avoiding hard truths will ultimately be apparent and appear as a bid for only a feel-good audience.

  2. Elizabeth Harlan Says:

    What a rich and valuable post. I got so much out of this that I can directly apply to what I’m doing. And of course I loved the reference to counting backwards to your conception; this is what my George Sand biography turned on: the awareness that her ostensible “biological” father was away in the army when she was conceived. Yes, brilliant, the when of things happening is too often given short shrift in memoirs. I’ll be mindful of what you’ve written and look increasingly forward to your future posts. Thank you!

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