Wednesday, October 13, 2010


My friend Phyllis is an avid journal-writer. She has been keeping a journal for as long as I've known her and she's saved the day on a number of occasions. What year was it when we bought our house in the country? When did we all take that great trip to Bethany Beach? When did we take that long bicycle ride and get lost in the rain? Who gave us that recipe for "Oven Stew?"

I think of Phyllis as a domestic historian, the keeper of our families' combined memories. But, at the heart of it, Phyllis is not writing for me or for anyone else. She writes for herself and that's the real value of a journal.

But, if you are writing for publication, you are most certainly writing for others. If you still write for your own enjoyment that's fine. Just understand that if your mind is set that way you probably won't find a publisher.

Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours, explored this topic beautifully in the Sunday Opinion section of October 3rd's New York Times. His article, "Found in Translation," is a must-read for would-be authors. I love his description of the students in his writing class:

"I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand--that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

"I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st centruy, there's been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones...I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result."

I hope you'll take a few minutes to read Cunningham's entire article. And next time you sit down to work on your book, remember your readers. Think about them and how you can best reach them. It's a good exercise and it will make you a better writer.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Great essay by Cunningham. Thanks for the post. He's judging the Three Minute Fiction contest on NPR this round. It was fun to write an essay for that contest, and to read the ones that have been posted.