PHFC8: Raaaaawwwr!

Okay, this isn’t really fluffy, but since it’s a non-fat-related meme, and we are in the midst of the Pre-holiday Cavalcade of Fluff, I’m categorizing it as such.

The lovely Harriet Brown said some very kind things about my writing and tagged me with a “Roar for Powerful Words.” What I love about this meme, other than the flattery, is that as you pass it along, you’re supposed to include three requirements for powerful writing. In reading through the Roar posts, I’ve already found one tip I’d never seen put into words before, which I think is fucking brilliant. From Lisa Romeo, who tagged Harriet:

Remember that no one cares. About you. About your story. But that readers really do care about themselves. The really good nonfiction writers help the readers find themselves in our stories.

I think that’s entirely true of the really good fiction writers, too. If I can’t relate to the characters, I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to them, which means I don’t give a rat’s ass about your book. You can write the prettiest sentences in the world, but if your characters are flat or stereotypical or so misanthropic I hope they die in a fire, I won’t make it past page 20. (Yes, I’m looking at you, literary writers who think you’re above such “commercial” concerns as, you know, telling a story well.)

Anyway. Having thought neither long nor hard about this question, here are my three requirements.

1. Know what you do well, and what you don’t.

Along the same lines of giving up The Fantasy of Being Thin, one of my biggest breakthroughs as a writer was giving up the fantasy of being brilliant, mind-bendingly complex, witty, heartbreaking, wildly original, lyrical, literary, accessible, suspenseful, insightful, challenging, and commercially successful, all at the same time. There are only a couple things on that list I actually do well — and notably, being lyrical, literary, wildly original and mind-bendingly complex are not among them. If I’m good at anything (and that is, of course, debatable), it’s telling fairly simple stories with wit and heart. But I didn’t want to acknowledge that for the longest fucking time, because A) “Heart” is so friggin’ cheesy (so unliterary!), and B) Applying humor to serious subjects means sitting through a lot of workshops where people go, “I don’t get it! I mean, am I supposed to care about her, or think this is funny?” BOTH, YOU FUCKING DOLT. Eventually, though, I had to admit that doing what I’m good at — and not straining to do anything else — tends to make my stories a lot more fun to read. Go fig.

2. If you “don’t write for other people,” then put it in a goddamned drawer and be done with it.

Of all the standard Novice Writer Defense Mechanisms, none irritates me quite like, “I only write for myself, not for other people.” HORSESHIT. Writers write to be read — and secretly, we write to be loved. If you really only write to please yourself, then why are we having this conversation? Why am I even aware that you’re a writer? You write because you want people to read it and love you for it, even if you know there’s little chance anyone ever will. But you claim you only write for yourself because that makes it easier to dismiss criticism and refuse to consider why your writing isn’t connecting with your intended audience.

And I believe the most common reason for that is, you have no clue who your intended audience is, so you’re not offering them anything they want. See Lisa Romeo’s rule above.

You must know your readership — and if you don’t have one yet, you must imagine a specific one and write to it. This doesn’t mean not writing for yourself, necessarily — my imaginary (and, to the extent that it exists, real) audience is pretty much “people (mostly women) who would like hanging out with me, and vice versa.” It can be as simple as that. But it can’t be “I write for myself” — because that leads to writing that’s about as engaging as detailed accounts of other people’s dreams — and crucially, it also can’t be “I write for everyone!” which is, I suspect, what people who claim to write only for themselves really believe down deep.

No story is so universal or so well-told that it won’t anger some people and bore the shit out of others. So once you’ve figured out what you’re good at and started doing much more of that than anything else, the next step is figuring out what kind of people would be charmed by what you’re good at, rather than angered or bored. Then you keep those people in the back of your mind with every word you write. You’re expecting them to read this eventually (yes, you are), so it’s only common courtesy to give them something worth their time, you know?

Which brings us to…

3. Accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In order to establish a “voice” worth reading, you have to be willing to alienate some people, piss some people off, be called all sorts of nasty names, be accused alternately of hackery and pretentiousness, etc. I mean, think about it, y’all — J.K. Rowling has about the broadest possible appeal of any contemporary writer, and she’s gotten all of the above a gazillion times over. Your blog is not bloody likely to find a more universally receptive audience than she’s got. So once you’ve acknowledged that you secretly write to be loved, you then have to accept that not everyone who reads your work will love it, or you. Them’s the breaks.

Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of two writing habits I have that draw a lot of criticism — and that’s without even getting into subject matter. First, I’ve got the pottymouth to end all fucking pottymouths. Second, I never know when to shut up. (As much as I appreciate Harriet’s “less is more” advice, keeping things short and sweet is on the long list of things I do not do well as a writer, so I don’t even try anymore, beyond reasonable editing.) But rather than make my writing child-friendly or force myself to cut ten paragraphs out of every post because some people insist that would make my shit more readable, I just keep doing what I do — swearing like a longshoreman and rambling like my dad — because that’s what I do well, and enough people seem to like it.

Enough people is the key. If no one at all read my blog, I’d have some serious thinking to do about whether my writing achieves its purpose. But enough people read it that I know I’m doing what I set out to do: reaching my intended audience. And anyone outside my intended audience can suck it, quite frankly.

So there you go. Yeah, it’s pretty much three variations on the same basic concept, but it’s an important concept, sez me.

On with the tagging.

For the first three, I’m going to semi-cheat and tag people I went to grad school with, because I know they’ll have interesting takes on this question.

Gemellen went to school for poetry but can also write prose like a motherfucker, which only makes me hate her a little bit. Her blog is a lot of personal fragments and proto-poems, but she’s drawn an audience well beyond her friends because — following what shall henceforth be known as The Romeo Rule — even when it’s totally about her, it’s also about anyone who’s ever been sad and frustrated with no end in sight, to the point of being sick of themselves and the goddamned world and the sickness itself. Also, she is awesome, and she knows things.

Paula Cisewski is also a poet — and teacher and mother and punk rock girl, and the person who introduced me to Al. One of the reasons she can write such amazing poems is that she has an uncanny ability to distill great, huge insights down to about 5 words — which will either crack your shit up or make you gasp. Sometimes both. So I look forward to seeing what she has to say about powerful writing, ’cause I imagine she’ll say it in about 1/100 of the words I’ve used here, and it will be smarter. (Also, go buy her book.)

Screwsan, better known around here as “sumac,” is a sex advice columnist-cum-literary blogger-cum-personal blogger, and also a fiction writer who graduated before me, despite being much younger than me, which only makes me hate her a little bit. Lady’s got opinions. Which happen to be smart, funny, deliciously mean to the people who deserve it, and compassionate toward everyone else. Just the way I like my opinions.

Next, on to people I only know from the blogosphere. One or both Hoydens, consider yourselves tagged. Tigtog and Lauredhel are two of the fiercest smarty-pants, skeptics, and feminists in my feed reader. Even when I go on a temporary political blog fast for my sanity, I can’t resist checking what’s up at Hoyden about Town. Not just because I am constantly charmed by the Aussie slang, even.

Finally, of course I need to round things out (geddit?) with a fat blogger. Dear Everyone on the Fatosphere Feed: You deserve a roar, and you are most welcome to consider this yours. But since I’m supposed to tag 5 people (and am counting the Hoydens as 1), I’ll single somebody out.

Meowser, you’re it. No one in the Fatosphere makes me think, “That’s exactly what I would have said — only SO MUCH FUNNIER!” as frequently as you do. Tell us how you do it, woman.


18 thoughts on “PHFC8: Raaaaawwwr!

  1. Holy crap, me?? Wow. I almost don’t know what to say. It’s like winning an Oscar, only without having to change my phone number!

    I’m supposed to be working today (haha), but I’ll certainly mull this over and see what I come up with.

    Continue ruling as always, KH.

  2. Hmm. You raise interesting questions about the purpose of a blog.

    It seems to me that a lot of people really *do* blog for themselves. I found a blog a few years ago called TimothyAndHeather.com, and I would be totally shocked if it turned out Heather was writing for an audience. People do read her blog, but I really don’t feel that that’s why she writes it. I feel like she’s keeping a public diary. We can read it–but it’s for herself, and I think she intends to use it as a kind of massive scrapbook. Twenty years from now, she’ll click back and revisit her memories.

    I’m also surprised to see that you yourself are aiming explicitly at a readership. I felt like your blog was about screaming something that had to be screamed. I felt that, like Heather, you’d be banging this drum in the desert at midnight if you had to.

    *That,* to me, is power.

  3. Savannah, I’d answer both your questions first by saying I’m talking about people who self-identify as capital-W Writers, not just people writing personal journals. And a lot of what I said here applies to my fiction writing, not just my blogging, for the record. Much of it also comes from my experience in publishing — specifically, with people who wanted someone to put out the money and effort to publish their work, yet claimed to have no particular readership in mind, and not care if they ever found one, ’cause they were above all that or something.

    Also, as to the second point, note what I said about the imaginary readership if you don’t already have one. That’s who I was writing for when I started this blog — and who I’d probably still be writing for if a real readership hadn’t shown up. My point is about writing in a way you hope will resonate with a particular audience, instead of trying to be all things to all people — which usually results in being not much to not many.

    I’m incredibly grateful for the readership I’ve got now, and I’d love it if it continued to grow. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of, when all I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. And honestly, I don’t quite see the power in pissing into the wind.

  4. I’ll add, though, that it’s OK if that “imaginary readership” only consists of one specific person for starters. In fact, sometimes it’s better that way if, like me, you’re the kind of person who gets creatively stymied by, “but what will all the hipsters think?” (In my case, probably nothing, because I’m too old and dorky for them to give a crap about anyway, but never mind.) When I write a song, I imagine singing it to C. first. When I rewrite a song, I imagine being on stage singing it in front of an audience, most of it filled with Shapelings!

  5. Oh, Kate, definitely, I think you should be immensely proud of your readership :)

    I didn’t mean to contradict anything you said. I hadn’t grasped that you were specifically talking about “capital-W Writers” in your comments about blogging.

  6. I would trade every single tiny bit of advice I got in University poetry workshops to have had just ONE person tell me those three things.

    It took me almost two decades to figure them out on my own. When I finally did, I started my fat acceptance blog and feel like I’m finally beginning to cross that line from “person who keeps a journal” to Writer.

    Thank you for writing this post so that other aspiring Writers can more easily make that leap from self-absorption into writing stories that a larger audience will want to read.

  7. I get what you’re saying about writing, but I think sometimes writers DO write for themselves–when an idea bites hard and has to be written out, even if no one else will ever read it. There are a few solitary pleasures in working out a plotline to one’s own satisfaction.

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  10. I am one of those who write for themselves, but I don’t talk about it unless someone brings it up, except a few times to wheeeeeeee that I completed NaNo the one year I did. I’d like to eventually write for others, but so far it seems the only thing that inspires me to write is my desperate need for cheap therapy. See also: knitting.

    Now if I could just figure out who my blog’s imaginary audience was supposed to be maybe it’d have fewer personalities.

    Happy holidays everyone!

  11. Holy hell, Screwsan and I used to hit up the clubs together back when we both lived in NYC! She’s the bomb. You haven’t lived until you and Screwsan have been propositioned by swingers in Pyramid on Avenue A.

  12. The first time I read your writing was the article on FoBT. Needless to say, I was blown away. Your writing is a harmonious blend of wit and insight, and I’m really envious. So envious that I feel the need to start writing on a daily basis because you are inspirational*.

    *I’m not a corny type of you inspire me person, but honestly I mean it.

    And I find myself laughing the hardest following a slew of cursing – your rage is righteous. :o)

  13. Thanks, Kate. There’s so much wisdom in your advice. My students at small southern university (SSU) need to know what you’ve just said. May I have your permission to cut, paste, and pass out your advice to my students next semester? Seriously. One of the things we’ll tackle this semester is originality and plagiarism. SSU are afraid of writing, and I think that your advice addresses many of their anxieties.

    But I’m also a history writer and professor. My first (little) book, based on my dissertation, helped me fall in love with writing. There’s now a big book waiting in me waiting to get out. I’d now like to know how to win a Pulitzer Prize.

  14. Whoa thanks! I do not feel deserving (I mean, at the risk of sounding too much like Seinfeld around here, I sort of write a blog about nothing) but I thank you very much, Kate. Also, I cannot wait to spend my entire work day reading Paula’s blog (and then onto the others you’ve tagged).

    I agree with everything you said about writing. It is so true that we write to be loved. This is why so many writers are insecure narcissists. And why I can never manage to date one successfully.

    Hilary! Don’t forget about the German industrial-goth transvestites. Oh gosh, I still miss you.

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  16. Very nicely said. I love your comment about workshops and people going, “Is this supposed to be funny or serious?”

    I’ve never been a fan of workshops because in my mind they homogenize writing and force it to fit a lowest common denominator in terms of variety. I’m a fiction writer, and I have very strong feelings about the idea that prose should be divided into neat little categories like Drama or Humor. Usually the only people who complain about my “mishmash” approach are other, more traditionally grounded writers. Readers by and large aren’t thrown by it at all. Why would they be? Life isn’t neat.

    And anyone outside my intended audience can suck it, quite frankly.

    Right on.

    I usually tell people that my target audience is “people who want to read what I want to write.” The glory of the internet is that it lets your audience find you, whatever that audience is. It lets everybody else find you, too, so you’ll have “I don’t get it.” people… or worse, people who think they get it and you don’t. They think they see a problem with what I’ve written. I tell them, “There’s no problem. You’re just not part of my target audience.”

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