Thursday, 24 April 2014

When should a writer consider their reader?

How can I know what you will make of this view?

This week somebody asked me how much I think about my audience when I write. It reminded me of a pithy line I’d heard from Peter Blair, (editor of Flash: The International Short-short Story Magazine) the week before: ‘write with the door shut; edit with the door open’. I don’t know if this is a quote or something he came up with himself, but his co-presenter, David Swann, agreed that at the first draft stage, the audience shouldn’t even be in your head – rather the writer is in a kind of trance. 

There was a mix of the descriptive and prescriptive going on in this conversation. It made me reflect on my own writing practice and the point at which I take the reader into account. Peter suggested that writers may take fewer risks if they bear the reader in mind too early. Interference of the audience in the mind of the writer at the start of the creative process seemed like a dangerous thing. David, who was a fountain of potential writing mottoes that evening, claimed that a poem (or a short story – both were up for discussion) is not a machine, but a tree, something that grows organically rather than being designed to do something. We could extend his metaphor, and say that the editing is a kind of pruning, when we start to think about the garden in which the tree will stand.

This conversation took place as part of a free seminar put on by the Open University, the last in their series on the short story in the 21st century. (I’d recommend looking out for future variations on this, as they had excellent academic speakers and free wine). The focus of this seminar was flash fiction and the oral short story. Peter Blair began by giving a swift but thorough history of the short-short story, identifying parables, fables and folk tales as precursors to the modern form, but revealing some surprising turns along the way. I for one had no idea that short-short stories, or flash fiction, had flourished in 1930s-40s America. Like many trends in literature, it seems to have risen and died away over and over again. You can find the full story (groan) in Peter’s entry on flash fiction in the new edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

But back to writing with an audience in mind. There is a really good article by Anita Mason here in the Guardian this week about where ‘literary’ fiction sits in relation to genre fiction (it is the hub of a wheel, with genres as the spokes, she argues). I wonder whether writing within the stricter structures of a particular genre counts as, or at least involves, considering the audience earlier on in the process than just sitting down to write ‘in a trance’? In those cases, these thoughts would be limiting, but probably in a useful way. Genres have limits, and breaching them brilliantly is hard to do. As Anita Mason points out, literary fiction does not have a particular goal. This may make it harder to write, or not, but it certainly allows for writing first drafts ‘with the door shut’.

This brings me back to another discussion that arose at the seminar with Peter and David: the difference between prose poetry and flash fiction. Peter suggested a continuum between prose poetry and flash, with the more lyrical and less plot-based writing being at the prose poetry end. However, as noted in the genre article above, literary fiction is not necessarily bothered about plot. Tastes and styles of flash fiction vary to a mind-boggling degree, but include the plotless, idea or image led, the obscure, the lyrical, the downright poetic. As David pointed out, one of the delights of writing short-short stories is that one idea, or phrase, or image, can result in a page of words. This could have been said about poetry. Indeed, many writers (including David) have presented the same series of words as a poem, prose-poem or piece of flash fiction depending on the audience, and encountered no objections.

Which brings me back round to the audience, and when to consider your reader. The person who asked me at what point I do that had very recently, and independently, read some of my work. The best time to consider his response was definitely in that conversation, several days after an unprompted reading, finding out how he reacted to my words with no clue as to my intentions. If only the writer could experience their work from that distance, I used to think, but one of the beauties of creative writing is that you can’t. The story, or poem, that somebody reads, is a product of your words and their mind, and there is little you can do to anticipate what that combination will create.

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