Passing the Litmus Test – Connection with the “external” reader

[Before I begin my discussion this week I wanted to mention that I will be teaching a summer online fiction writing workshop for the Truckee Meadows Community College – http://www.tmcc.edu – in case any of you are interested.  You can apply, register, and pay fees on-line.  Best of all, there are no residency requirements for summer classes.  Look for ENG 221, second summer session.  Class begins in July.]

There is an axiom that warns creatives not to talk too much about their upcoming/current projects.  The fear is two-fold: 1) there is the fear of having an idea stolen, and;  2) many artists believe that discussing a project in too much detail will disperse the creative energy of the idea, leaving them vacant when it comes time to produce.

I certainly guard against both in my own creative life.

But there is an opposite side of the proverbial coin here, that discussing the overarching project with a few trusted associates – be they friends, family, or lovers – can actually feed the creative buzz and keep one motivated even when the internal muse up and leaves.

Much has been said about writing groups recently, and most creatives have a circle of some kind where they go to share their work with like-minded folk who understand the artist’s struggle.  This is one of the great advantages of a creative community, that one has a place to share one’s work in hopes of getting proper (i.e. technical) feedback on the many facets of the project.  But there is something equally important in sharing our ideas outside of the fold.  With our artist’s groups we are often “preaching to the choir,” pitching our process to folks who already assume certain things because they, too, are experiencing what we are.

Consider the value, however, of the non-artist critic – intelligent and trustworthy people who don’t know the first thing about the internal struggles of the artist – or if they know the first, even the second thing, they still and nonetheless aren’t deeply involved in the daily struggle of, say for the sake of argument, the creative writer.  These people may have written a little in their time, and certainly they should be readers, but they do not consider themselves artists . . . let me give you a personal example.

My significant other was an active writer and painter in her youth.  She has written poems, short stories, journals, and more recently, blogs.  These days she is a dedicated scientist and administrator.  She does not have a lot of time to write and paint, does not have the daemonic drive to do those things the way I do.  She is busy in science and her artistic past is a home where her talented and capable artistic self once resided.  Because of this background she is a trustworthy audience for testing my ideas.  In her I do not, however, have the full sense of choir I do with my writing group and fellow writers.  She knows a bit about what it takes to write creatively, she knows what she likes, but otherwise she is busy in another realm.  And there is one more caveat which ultimately qualifies her as a test subject for my work:

She doesn’t like everything I write.

This may seem harsh, but consider the lessons couched in this reality.  First, the serious artist benefits nothing from being over-sensitive to criticism.  Whether we believe it or not, not everything we create is outstanding, and even if it is, not everyone is going to like it.  But there is something beyond personal taste going on in my case: her dislike of some of my work is not always personal preference.  Sometimes I simply don’t do my job.  And without the filter of a practicing artist interfering with her response to my work she is free to react as a consumer of the product.  She reads like a reader.  Her reaction is genuine as a reader’s and I, as the writer, have the opportunity to review what I have done to see where my work is lacking.

2013 has been a very good year for me in terms of creativity.  I have been inundated with ideas for poems, short stories, novels, and now, a play.  My partner, external to my circle of artist friends, has been with me over the entire journey and has seen things unfold as I go.  And now the pay off.  I am seeing and hearing sincere enthusiasm for my ideas and end product more and more consistently from her.  This is not because I write to cater to her tastes, but because through the external critique of a demanding audience (and she will admit to being demanding) I am forced to grow.  I can trust the response because it comes from “outside the know.”  She has pushed me to reach a larger audience, and to create more satisfying results.  I have been inspired to reach deep and get at the core of who I am as a writer.

Most writers have a community surrounding them by which their work is evaluated.  Assuming this reality, it is incumbent for every writer to evaluate their community to assure that “external” readers are present.  Our external readers represent an unknown audience.  They are a precursor to our harshest critics and our most challenging barriers to readership.  They are part muse and part critic in the most raw sense, for when they connect with our work we are afforded a sense of the accomplishment, and of the satisfaction, awaiting us in the greater realm of publication.

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6 comments on “Passing the Litmus Test – Connection with the “external” reader

  1. lpaigewrites says:

    I don’t think I could have put this better myself. I usually, if not always, find myself sensitive when it comes to the criticism of my own “external” readers (probably because I sometimes don’t like what they have to say). You’re right, though. It’s important that both the artists and the non-artists can read and appreciate our work. Wonderful post, yet again. 🙂

  2. jcollyer says:

    You are absolutely right. I don’t for a minute negate the benefits of sharing with and accruing feedback from other artists and writers – there’s so much to learn – but your readers will be just that: readers. They are not likely to be writers and even if they are I think you would hope they have picked up your book to read for pleasure and not to study. I have a list of poeple I want to read my draft once it is done: a couple are writers who can give me the technical feedback I need, but most of them are not and have a wide range of personal tastes. I already know that no matter how good it is it won’t appeal to everyone, but the average ‘reader’ feedback is probably what is going to be most useful and making a ‘readable’ product. And I never set out to be technically masterful. I just want people to enjoy what I write.

  3. I used to warn my wife (before she was my wife) to be careful when she broached the topic of my writing because, inevitably, I’d monopolize the conversation for an hour or more, excitedly expounding upon characters, story lines, future plans, etc. Yes, there is something undeniably energizing about sharing thoughts related to one’s creative pursuits. And after such dialogues (or maybe they were monologues), I always felt inspired to dive in and do more creating.

    These days, my wife is my alpha reader. She reads everything, and (like you, T.) she doesn’t like all of it. She questions my decisions. She criticizes my execution. She nitpicks at details. And I’m a better writer because of it. I often argue with her, explaining why I went the direction I did — why those words on the page are right, valuable, and brilliant — but more often than not, when I go back to edit, I am forced to agree that she was right.

    We writers are always too close to our material. True objectivity is impossible. Nearly everything we put down in that first draft “work” for us. That’s why we wrote it! But if it isn’t going to work for the majority of your readers, it has to go.

    One final thought here, in his book “On Writing,” Stephen King talks about finding that one ideal reader and target all of your fiction toward his/her tastes. In King’s case, it’s his wife. I don’t know if I agree with him. Anyway, I know I couldn’t write the perfect book for my wife. While I strive to keep the quality of my prose to her standards, the books she tends to read fall outside of my areas of interest. So I write the book that I want to read — and I’m pretty picky.

    • emperort says:

      Well I just wrote a clever reply and then the internet sneezed and I lost it. In summary I was commending you (and King) for finding a reliable “go-to” reader for your work. My s.o., I was saying, and I have quite different tastes in some things and sometimes her dislike is a matter of preference. But it’s better to have someone get you questioning your work because of aesthetics than to be surrounded by people who think everything you do is good.

  4. Marisa says:

    I was just going to say “beautiful tribute” to your S.O. She came across to me as full of peace and an inner drive that was unique blend of science, beauty & love. Question–is one’s muse ever internal? I’m under the impression that the muse is external & shows up in the embodiment of other …. what’s the word… people & inspirations. I’m learning where to find him/her and would LOVE to hear your theory on MUSE. There’s a TED talk on it I heard last year that made me consider consiensciously looking for him/her—OK I’ll just say it—HIM, for me my muse is a him, he’s definately masculine … for some reason…. He’s there at the ocean every time I go, he’s in 2 friends of mine, he’s in my little boy dancing and bouncing and bubbling w/love. If I find the TED talk I will send you the link. If you find it–send it to me, please.
    Anyway, beautiful tribute.

    • emperort says:

      Great question! I think I have experienced the MUSE internally as well as externally. A lot of old literature is full of external muses: Dante’s Beatrice, for example. In my experience I also attribute inspiration to the Muse, such as when I get a line or a few lines of solid poetry that I then turn into a full poem, or an idea for a short story – for any story, really. When inspiration comes it comes as such a rush that it feels mystically driven, and that seems like a visitation from the Muse to me. Of course, I don’t know that I believe the Muse is actually a living thing, but rather at most is a creative energy, maybe some sort of traveling creative intelligence that lodges in our minds (and hearts) and gives creative people the material for making an artistic work. External Muses may be the people we encounter who are full of something special that inspires us – but then who is to say they aren’t filled or influenced by the internal Muse as well, and are thus a vessel for the same thing the rest of us are from time to time?

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