Pick an audience that likes the illegible you of today, not your past achievements
Writing as communion
Edvard Munch, From Thüringerwald, 1905
This is the fourth part of the series “First we shape our social graph; then it shapes us.” Part two was “Scraping training data for your mind” (partly payalled), part three “A blog post is a very long and complex search query to find interesting people and make them route interesting stuff to your inbox.” They can be read independently.
In my early twenties, when I wrote mainly spoken poetry, I used to say that the words on the paper are not the poem. The words are more like programming code. The poem is what the words turn into when you run them in the compiler of an audience. The poem is a mood in a room, it is the possibility for certain types of conversations in the lobby afterward—grown men crying, thinking about their grandmas, or something like that. The crying is the poem.
When you think about writing in this way, what you do is not so much constructing sentences as extracting a latent possibility in the relationship with the audience. You try various phrases, notice the reactions, improvise a bit, and gradually you discover something in this dialogue between writer and audience that is bigger than what you could have done on your own.
The British comedian Jimmy Carr talks about this in a recent interview:
The audience is a genius. They know immediately, that’s funny, that’s not funny, that’s acceptable, that’s not acceptable. They make the call on all that stuff so you’re just like presenting stuff and going, “Is that okay? Is that all right?”
Carr says he spends five minutes every night trying new jokes, and most bomb, but a few are good, and after a year the audience has given green light on enough material for him to record a comedy special. One can almost say the special was latent in the audience.
If you look at transcriptions of the speeches of Martin Luther King, you can see this process, too—how the material grows on stage as he improvises night after night, reacting to the audience. The most famous example is, of course, when he tells the audience at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. that he has a dream and Mahalia Jackson shouts, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” and he moves the notes to the side and starts riffing, pulling on many of the images that he had developed on stage during the months prior.
I think of this way of writing as “communal,” and I partly view what I do on my blog in this way. Much of what I write (including this) is prompted by questions that others ask me, and the input that feeds my creative process often comes from people I’ve met through the blog—book recommendations I get sent, friends I’ve made, comments, and critiques that forces me to sharpen my thinking.
The writing is a product of the social graph summoned by the writing.
But as much as I love this communal aspect of writing, it is also something that I have come to fear. Love and fear: these two feelings coexist in my heart.
The fear sounds a lot like Brian Eno:
Of course, it’s really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you’ve done - in fact it’s the only serious reward, because it makes you think “it worked! I’m not isolated!” [...] But on the other hand, there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can’t do that - I don't have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me [...] but at the same time I do feel guilt for ‘deserting my audience’ by not doing the things they apparently wanted. I’d rather not feel this guilt, actually, so I avoid finding out about situations that could cause it.
This is from an email where Eno turns down an invitation to an email list dedicated to his work.
In my early twenties, I performed what I read on stage nearly every week. I would read in bookshops and theaters, nightclubs and churches—wherever I was invited. After doing this for a year or two, I noticed that I had gotten more circumscribed in my writing. I had started to sound how I was expected to sound.
And little wonder: I would venture out in a new direction, something that felt true to me, and I would immediately get a visceral reaction from the audience. “Is that ok?” “No.” I was one of Skinner’s doves, getting an electric shock whenever I wrote things that literary audiences did not resonate with. I would reveal a trembling, half-finished thought and people would stand up mid-sentence and walk out of the room.
After years of this, I had successfully programmed myself to feel a slight pressure across my chest whenever a poem that was taking shape in my head veered into a region where I knew I’d be hurt on stage. And I steered away from that—toward resonance. The social rewards and punishments had worked themselves into my spine.
I struggled to keep the expectations from steering my writing even when I wasn’t writing for an audience. Their expectations had become mine. And this made it hard for me to follow my thoughts where they wanted to go.
I liked to say that writing was a tool to explore and expand your inner world. But now, I wasn’t doing that. When the voice inside me that wanted me to be authentic veered its head, it bellowed insults at me, ”You coward! Tell them—” But I whacked it in the head and stuffed it down into my belly.
It was right at this point that I visited Johanna’s apartment for the first time. This night, which I mentioned in “Looking for Alice,” was three days before I would leave for my first (and so far only) reading tour in the US. Here’s the mood I was in:
Here I was, clearly having been obsessed with her for one and a half years, which we both knew, and finally, I was being led into her bedroom, a room strewn deep with books and half-finished canvases stacked against the walls, and I decided that this was the right time to talk about how ashamed I was with myself, and how out of control my life was.
It was such a relief to not censor myself, to let my thoughts flow where they wanted to flow—the more idiosyncratic and “wrong” I was, the deeper Johanna’s curiosity seemed to become. It was like the inverse of the audiences I had submitted myself to.
Ten days later, I was sitting on the stairs outside an apartment in Waltham looking at empty cups from Dunkin’ Donuts rolling past in the wind. The tour was over and I felt like a car crash. I remember playing around with a stanza of a poem in my head as I sat there. The rolling cups made it into the poem and I called them “divested screams,” whatever that means. Nothing good I suppose.
I had talked to Johanna for less than ten hours, and I wasn’t sure if she’d want to see me again, but I felt so unfettered when I talked to her. The distance between what I could say with her and what I allowed myself to say on stage made me feel false every night on the tour. I wanted to be unfettered in my writing, I wanted my thoughts to unfold like they did with her, but I knew, or felt I knew, that I couldn’t do that in the world I had made for myself. I felt like no magazines would allow me to explore what I needed to explore (and indeed, they did start to turn down my pitches right around this time) and I couldn’t imagine that audiences would like what I was thinking, either.
What do you do when you find yourself in a situation like that—where the only way to cling to your status is to censor yourself? It took me a few months to accept the obvious answer, but for me, it could only be: you quit. I would turn down all offers.
What followed was seven years when I didn’t show what I was writing to anyone but Johanna. People couldn’t understand this choice. When I tried to explain why I went silent, friends gave me worried looks. They said I had “given up.” But there was, as far as I could tell, nothing to do about this social inconvenience. I needed those years to familiarize myself with where my thoughts wanted to go when free from the expectations of others. I had to learn to write for myself, using the paper as a vehicle to expand my thought. I couldn’t do that with an audience.
If you write to please others, you are selling out. You are in the process of audience capture. This way of talking, which is how the fear in me talks, is common—as if writing for an audience and writing for yourself are at odds with each other. I really used to feel like that.
But I no longer think that it is quite right. The relationship between communal writing and self-writing is more complex than that. There is often conflict between the needs of the writer and the needs of the audience. But there can also be mutuality. An audience that is right at one time might be wrong at another. The literary world unleashed me when I was twenty and began distorting me at 23.
But some audiences are like Johanna. Individuals or groups that enable continual unfolding, who are interested not in a particular version of you, but the process of you. People who will encourage and enable the searching, creative, illegible you of today, rather than the polished you of your past achievements. This is true in all walks of life, not just writing. Some friends, communities, and employers limit your personal unfolding. Others support it.
Though we talk about “the individual vs the collective,” as if that dichotomy is an eternal truth about the world, there exist groups that encourage divergence and healthy individuation.
The archetypal example of this pattern for me is Bayaki pygmy song groups.
The Bayaki pygmies are famous for their improvised polyphonic music: one person sings a melody, and then the others join in improvising different melodies on top. There are two incentives the participants face. First, they must sing something that harmonizes with and supports the group as a whole; they can’t sing out of key, or emphasize dissonant intervals. But second, they can’t sing the same thing as anyone else, either, because then there is no harmony, and the whole thing is boring.
In a group like this, the drive for resonance is also a drive for divergence, reinvention, and surprise. The collective becomes the harmonic background against which each singer unfolds their melodic potential. The individual singers pull from their idiosyncrasies to add surprises and keep the song going, and what they add becomes the context for others to do the same. They turn the tension between individual and collective into a generative force. This is possible because they can all walk away if the song becomes confining, or if someone is singing in a way that holds the others back.
The big turning point for me was realizing that this is how blogging works too, or at least the part of the blogging world I like. If I look back at the things I wrote two years ago, before I had an “audience,” the essays strike me as less me. Supported by the expectations of my core readers, which I have found by writing online, I have been able to unfold what is different in me. I’ve grown more comfortable in my strangeness, and more fond of the provinces I inhabit. I wouldn’t have found my years in the Scandinavian poetry scene particularly interesting on my own, for example, but when I talk to Davey and Alex, I realize my poetry years add something to our dialogue. So I wrote this.
Alexander Obenauer, Davey Morse, Michael Nielsen, and Johanna Wiberg read drafts of this essay.