The Process Involves Other People’s Eyes

As a writing student I learned the maxim, “Know your audience.” I understand its logic but even now, a decade into my career as a writer, I’m still vaguely baffled about what to do with it. I still think, as I did at first, “How am I supposed to know who my audience is?” It seems to me that my audience is a subset of the reading public who self-selects in response to my writing. I can’t know my “audience” in advance. I have to write what I write and then let them find me, let them get to know who I am as a writer and decide for themselves whether they want to comprise my audience.

And then there is the troubling role the “audience” plays in my mind as I am composing a piece. On one hand, I always have the reader’s needs in mind and I’m endlessly tweaking and adjusting and revising my prose so that it will be clearer and more fluid and even more beautiful, for the reader’s sake and esteem. But on the other hand, if I were to imagine my reader too precisely and if I were to keep her desires and opinions and feelings and needs in mind too closely, I’d be crippled. So I spend a lot of time ignoring the reader, pretending she isn’t really out there, even actively closing my eyes to evidence of her attention. I spend a lot of time listening only to the voices deep in my head, trusting in them alone.

Yet I can’t ignore that others’ perceptions are necessary for the writing itself. That the voices in my head are often the voices of my sister or my best friend or my husband or my stepson, working away at me, becoming part of me and part of the tales I tell. I remember a friend’s story about a sculpture she once saw. It was a large wooden pear with insect wings. A lovely thing, fairy-like—until you looked closely enough to see that the pear did not have wings but that they belonged to a bug emerging from a blackened gash in the fruit. It is good to remember to question everything I write, knowing there might be a rotting wound in some corner that I haven’t seen because I’m peering at it from the wrong angle.

It’s a tightrope walk, to write with the reader and without the reader. To care about the reader’s opinions but shield myself from her judgments. Particularly as a writer of memoir, that much maligned form. I think of Arcade Fire’s song “Reflector,” and the line about “a reflection of a reflection of a reflection,” which seems a riff on Baudrillard’s copy of a copy of a copy. In the video, which makes a potent comment on the shallowness of celebrity and mass culture, the band members wear oversized paper maché heads that are fashioned after the real face of each wearer. At one point they all kneel beside a lake and peer at their masks in the water, recalling Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image and, reaching for it, drowned. I wonder if I, gazing so fiercely into my own life, sometimes come close to falling in.

But I suspect that narcissism is in a way the opposite of what I do. The narcissistic isn’t toward exploration of one’s own identity so much as it is about masking a “vacuum of identity” (to borrow from Judith Thurman). Memoir involves much shielding but it is hollow and stupid without a thick stream of exposure, an acceptance of and willingness to reveal one’s own fragility. It is in the exposure that discovery happens, and so discovering becomes an act of survival. Writing becomes the work of fortifying an identity against forces that so often, by copying and reflecting and copying and reflecting, can obliterate identity.

And yet isn’t it odd, reader, that the piece of writing—no matter how vulnerable, confessional, or raw—inevitably becomes another mask?

About Marin Sardy