Playing to an Audience

Back when I frequented the Poets.org critique forums, I often found myself talking about the distinction between what I called “private poems” and “public poems.” Private poems were poems that existed for the author’s benefit – often to work through emotional events like a breakup or the death of someone close. And there’s nothing wrong with a private poem – it offers catharsis to the person who pens it. But the place of a private poem is in a personal journal and not a literary one. Private poems may deal with the same subject matter as public ones, but what differentiates the process of writing a private poem from the process of writing a public one is the subtle, constant presence of the “other.” In composition classes, it’s referred to as audience, and often treated as a mere consideration or component.

But audience is at the core of writing, and all other techniques and conventions flow from that. It’s a shame that so much of writing in our schools and academic institutions is audienceless. And let’s be clear that a teacher or professor is not an audience, because there is no purpose in writing to that particular person about the chosen topic except demonstration: to prove your knowledge about the topic, your ability to perform research, your writing skills, and your mastery of style guides. Writing for a grade is not the same as writing to communicate a point, a process, a feeling, or an experience. I suspect many students are only confronted with the distinction when they reach university. Their misunderstanding becomes evident when they are suddenly asked to blog for their courses; often the writing is obviously a private demonstration of ability for the instructor’s benefit, and not a public conversation with their classmates or a wider audience.

I remember – at least I think I do – when I came to understand that I wasn’t just writing for myself or for my instructors. My high school creative writing teacher gave us letter grades because she had to, but those letter grades were accompanied by an evaluation that the work was either “publishable,” “publishable with revision,” or “unpublishable.” We were not required to submit our work for publication, but we were, for the first time, treated like working writers trying to communicate with real audiences. We learned to read like writers and openly workshopped each others’ fiction and poems, speaking in detail about how the work worked for us, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. This switch in stance, from students trying to impress to writers trying to engage an audience, changed everything.

It’s something I wish for every student, the earlier the better. I believe that, wherever possible, educators ought to ask their students to write public projects, not private ones. Writing work that will be peer reviewed doesn’t necessarily count – the student’s peers must be a natural audience for the work, not a contrived one. But what if you are a student, with little control over the course material? Simple. Choose to switch stances. Treat your instructor not as your arbiter but as your colleague, and decide that you have something important to share with them. Choose a topic you’ll both find interesting; this almost certainly won’t be the same topic ten of your classmates choose to write about just because there’s abundant literature. Writing is the show-and-tell of adulthood. Bring something that matters.


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