By Matthew Ferrara
As writers, we often approach our stories by thinking about our audience. What do we want our readers to feel, to see, to experience through our tales? We get excited about taking them on a journey where they laugh, cry, get a little scared and hopefully love the ending. So we write, write, write in the hopes that we’ll get everyone there. And sometimes, when we look back at what we wrote, we find that somehow it doesn’t work. Not only won’t readers get there, we didn’t even get there ourselves. So what happened?
Should we just write another draft, or a third? Chuck it all out and start from scratch? Change the vocabulary to hit readers over the head with our point? Actually, the answer is none of these. The solution is something altogether different: It’s to forget about readers, that mass-group that Steinbeck called “the nameless, faceless audience” and instead write to one single reader. One person. Someone you know well enough that you can see them reading your words in your mind’s eye, and reacting to your words the way only they can react.
To forget the everyone and write for someone.
I learned this lesson from my career as a speaker. When you walk out on stage to 5,000 people in a room, there’s no way to be sure your message will reach them all, delight them all, convince them all that your story is right for them. Try as you might, you can’t make eye contact, let alone word-contact, with everyone. And you’re a speaker: someone who writes with their voice in real time under bright lights. So what do I do?
I speak to one person the entire time. Someone I can see right in the front row. If I can’t see them because it’s dark, then I imagine my best friend in the front row, sitting there, listening to my story. I talk as if it’s just us in the room, and I make my point as comfortably as if I could see their reactions to my words. This is how I know how to start, how to select my words, how to manage the page, and most of all, how to keep going. I turn a speech in front of everyone into a conversation with someone.
When I write, I do the same thing.
Rather than writing for the masses, to an audience I’ll never see or meet or hug, I imagine the person I want most to love my story. I envision them fully: What they’re wearing, how they’re sitting, how their eyes are moving, and so on. It helps me visualize when to slow down or speed up. Whether my words are too complex, or easy. Their reactions tell me when it’s time to use an example, or move the scene, or close the chapter.
One person makes all the difference to my writing. It takes the pressure off. No more worrying about pleasing the whole universe of readers, just tell a story to someone I know will already like it. I find more energy to keep writing, because I want to continue the conversation, to tell the next part, to my friend sitting there. And I immediately discover my voice, because it’s just me, telling my story, without any need to imitate anyone else’s style.
So why not try it? Who do you know that would love to hear your tale, who would sit there all night as you told it, and would feel it the way you meant it to be felt? Who can you sit next to you every time you pick up your pen and encourage you to keep going? As a writer, sometimes less is more. So erase your vision of the great-big-audience and redraft one person to write along with you. Dante had his Virgil. Who will you have, as you go on your writer’s journey?
Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Florence on June 2-6 2019? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together. Email me at email@example.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.