Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Gaze, Voice, and Audience

"Who are you writing for?" is one of the prime questions in any writing. I don't believe it is something we have to worry about too much in rough draft, but as soon as we begin revising, we need to be considering who this is for. Not just why, the deeper reason why, but to whom we are writing.

It's a hard question, though, because audience can't be too big or too small. "Everyone," is not a working answer. Too vague. "My sister," is too specific, though you can find clues in there. Why your sister? Because she, too, survived an abusive childhood? In that case, maybe you are writing to people who survived abusive childhoods. A somewhat narrow (though not narrow enough, unfortunately) audience, but getting closer. Perhaps then people who want to know what it was like, not just survivors. Ah, now we are getting there - an interest group, an audience, big enough to be diverse, small enough to have focus.

Who your writing is for affects your voice. If you are writing to other academics, then you use a different language than writing to general Joe Schmoe. If you are writing about being institutionalized and are writing only to others who have been institutionalized, then the jargon and culture will sound different than if you are reaching out to people outside the system, whatever that system is. How do you capture both the inner - of your own individual culture, experience, era - and communicate it to the outer/other - people who didn't have those experiences but are sympathetic and want to read your book?

Sometimes our writing is purely for other audiences. I've been thinking about this a lot this week, after seeing I Am Not Your Negro, a film based on thirty pages of James Baldwin's notes, ostensibly about the deaths of three of his friends: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. In some ways, what he wrote of this draft was a memoir of watching his friends die, but it also was, as is often the case for Baldwin, an eloquent analysis of race, a deeply motivated attempt to communicate to white people what it is like for him, and his brothers and sisters, to be black in America.

It's interesting to read the reviews. Pretty much down the center line, those who are white review it as powerful, necessary, beautiful. Blown away by Baldwin's words and voice, stunned into emotion by viscerally violent imagery both of back then and Black Lives Matter movement now. Those who are black review it as powerful, too - who doesn't love Baldwin's voice? - but also find they believe it is made for a white audience. People who need to be shocked into paying attention. One review even points to how the film relies on a form of black necrophilia, something she and other black folks are not really in the need of seeing, since they know it exists anyway.

Especially if your memoir serves to inform, it is crucial to consider what those who haven't had your experience will experience, and what those who have had similar lives will relate to and resonate with. The fact is, you may isolate some folks - other people who had traumas or even joys similar to yours may not want to read your work. My wife, who is transgender, finds pretty much all memoirs and fictional works related to transgenderism to either hit too close to home or be way off the mark - regardless, she already knows and doesn't need more. I don't blame her. As her ally, I read and watch nearly everything I can get my hands on. So I am even more of an audience than she is.

And for people who can't relate at all but are curious? You can only go so far as to invite someone in - if you have had severe mental health challenges and your audience includes someone who doesn't even know what the DSM is, if you are black and write primarily about that experience and your audience includes a lot of white folks, if you are young and queer and hope to include folks in your grandparents' straight and cisgender generations - these are bridges to cross, and gaps that need reaching.

You will not cross all of them. You cannot. That's why "everyone" is not a good answer. If you happen to catch some folks outside of your focus, that's ok - great, even. But you can't count on that. Who your audience is shapes your voice, and knowing a bit about their gaze - something folks in many forms of minority-ship know all too well (male gaze, able-bodied gaze, white gaze) - is crucial.

Study your experience. Don't just write about it from your perspective. Read bits of what you write to safe representatives from the groups of folks you are interested in but not sure how to reach. Is it reaching them? What else do they need? And in the end, you have to decide - if your story gets too bent by trying to reach others, then maybe it's not meant to be shared with them. But do share it. Please. We need all the stories we can get nowadays - real and raw and direct.

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