Stephen King writes in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.’
I wrote an autobiographical piece for my blog entitled ‘Why I Write’, and I found the autobiographical form, used by King in On Writing and Margaret Atwood in Negotiating with the Dead, useful in examining my development as a reader and a writer and how reading has shaped my writing.
The first poem I wrote, as a child, was inspired by and in the style of Dr Seuss; later, I was influenced by reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adopting some of his stylistic traits such as conjunctive lists of three. An example from my own work is: “She felt sick and scared and alone.”
Adopting styles, King argues, is a natural process of becoming a writer, ‘constantly refining (and redefining) your own work’. Here, reading and writing are closely connected – it’s putting the theory one learns from reading into practice. I’m still caught in the current of this process, as I find my style of writing pulled in different directions depending on what I’ve read. It’s an important part of the learning and development processes: we learn these different styles which we can then use and we develop our own individual voices through experiencing and experimenting.
The experience of being a reader also teaches us how to write for a reader. I’ve never given much conscious thought to my audience until I began this module. I wrote a letter to my Ideal Reader, now on this blog, at the start of the semester which made me think about what I try to achieve in my writing in terms of ‘audience’.
In summary, my Ideal Reader is an attentive, active reader who is interested in socio-political issues but wants the story to take the foreground and does not want to be spoon-fed either narrative or my own political beliefs; they value ambiguity and read to raise questions rather than to be given answers. This process of trying to identify my Ideal Reader was interesting as I realised that the qualities I want my writing to have are the qualities I enjoy when reading – I am my Ideal Reader. I think most writers are their own Ideal Readers, they want to write the kind of literature they themselves value as readers.
I think there’s a difference between ‘audience’ and ‘reader’. Russel Banks, in his essay ‘Notes on Literature and Engagement’, argues that the writing novelist gives no thought to his or her audience during composition – only when they are published do they begin to think about audience. Here, audience is meant as market – target audience, perhaps – not necessarily reader. King writes that the only reader we need be aware of during the writing process is our Ideal Reader, not our entire audience. Similarly, Atwood writes that
the writer-while-writing and the Dear Reader assumed as the eventual recipient of this writing have a relationship that is quite different from that between the mass-produced edition and ‘the reading public.’ Dear Reader is singular… Dear Reader is a You.
When I’m writing fiction or poetry there is only the Ideal Reader, the Dear Reader, to whom I want to communicate my story as clearly as possible. I give no thought to a target audience, no thought to a demographic that I want to appeal to.
However, when we were studying journalism this was not the case. As Peter Cole writes in ‘How Journalists Write’, a journalist must ‘cater to their [audience’s] interests and preoccupations, sometimes their prejudices.’ Magazines and newspapers have very specific readerships, and when writing my feature article I had to keep my audience in mind. Also, readers are less likely to commit to or invest effort in reading a journalist’s story than they are a novel. This awareness of audience and context was unusual for me, and I don’t think I quite grasped it in the first drafts. But I enjoyed the task and plan on rewriting the pieces with more attention to audience and context.
In Burn This Book, a collection of essays on writing by writers, edited by Toni Morrison, the idea of the writer as a truth-teller who explores humanity in all its ambiguity and complexity frequently recurs. David Grossman writes in ‘Writing in the Dark’, ‘I write, and I try not to shield myself from the legitimacy and suffering of my enemy, or from the tragedy and the complexity of his life’. For Grossman, and many of the other contributors to Burn This Book, it is the writer’s job to describe humanity from an impartial position – to understand and fairly depict ‘the enemy’.
As a writer, I aim to explore the same human ambiguity and complexity: I try to write characters who are flawed and morally ambiguous. This is noted in my letter to my Ideal Reader, and is hopefully apparent in my work (e.g. Little Red).
But despite trying to achieve impartiality, I think this is impossible. In his essay ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes argues that the author is not present in the work. Similarly, John Updike writes in ‘Why Write?’ that the writer tries to make themselves transparent, ‘as selfless as a lens.’ But lenses select, frame and distort. It is impossible for a writer to become an entirely transparent truth-teller, because they will always be selecting, framing and distorting the truth.
A writer is not an instrument, a writer is a person with their own beliefs, ideas and intended meanings and these will always be present in the text. I cannot escape my context: I am a white, heterosexual, middle-class, Western male; the best I can do is try to represent fairly all the complexities of humanity.
The author’s presence does not ‘close the writing’, as Barthes argues – the writing is still open to the reader’s interpretation. In his essay ‘Encoding, Decoding’, Stuart Hall identifies three audience ‘positions’ of decoding, or interpreting, a televisual discourse. These are: dominant-hegemonic, a position where the audience decodes the information as it was meant to be decoded; negotiated – audiences may accept some messages but oppose or adapt others; and oppositional – audiences completely reject the given message and decode it ‘within some alternative framework of reference.’
Though Hall’s theory is referring particularly to television, it can be applied to novels and other writing. The theory argues that the audience’s interpretation of a text can vary to the intended interpretation. However, the audience must recognise the intended meaning in order to oppose or negotiate it, so what about audiences who misinterpret the text or have alternate readings that neither oppose nor accept the intended message?
For me, Barthes focuses too much on the reader’s interpretation and Hall focuses too much on the author’s intention. Paul Auster writes in ‘Talking to Strangers’ that ‘[e]very novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader.’ This implies that the meaning of a text is created by both the writer and the reader. In my writing, I find this to be true – when I write a story there are always intended meanings or interpretations, though they may be vague or ambiguous, and there is always space for the reader to interpret the text how they will.
King writes of description that it ‘begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s’, and I think that this applies not only to description but to the entire meaning of the text.Writing should evoke thoughts, feelings and imagination, not instruct the reader how to think or feel. This is the brilliance of fiction – good fiction allows the reader to use their own creativity to participate in the construction of the story as a whole.
Speaking of the construction of a story, I’ve recently been rethinking my approach to starting a piece. King argues that plotting detracts from the natural ‘feel’ of a story and the creative spontaneity of writing, and takes agency from the characters; plot holes and discrepancies can be fixed in the editing process.
Unlike King, I plan meticulously before I begin writing. As PD James said,
[b]y the time I begin writing, the plot is there and there’s a chart which shows in which order the things come so that the structure is right. But that will change, as new ideas occur during the writing, which makes the writing very exciting.
I find the planning gives me a sense of direction; there is still creative spontaneity in the writing process as new ideas form, and I ensure that the story progresses naturally, and the characters behave naturally, in the planning process. However, King’s idea of putting a character in a situation and simply narrating what happens does appeal to me.
Though I won’t abandon my way, I do plan on experimenting with this situational approach. Just as I adopted other styles when I began writing, I will continue to observe and adopt other techniques and approaches in order to develop and broaden my craft. To become a better writer I will read a lot and write a lot – I will experience and experiment.
One interesting question I received after my presentation, asked by Lewis Allsop, was along the lines of: ‘You said you began by writing poetry, did this affect how you wrote prose?’
I thought for a moment. ‘Yesss… definitely. I’m just trying to think how… Imagery, I guess, and meaning, because with a poem everything is condensed, kinda boiled down, so it’s this rich reduction of meaning. Every word has to fit perfectly, so I find myself in my prose hurting my head trying to find the perfect word, you know? And rhythm, too. I tried writing free verse but I prefer poems with metre, rhythm and rhyme, and that’s definitely influence my prose. I think it’s important for sentences to have the right rhythm, for so many reasons. Rhythm can change the meaning of the words or how the text feels. I often read what I write aloud to make sure it sounds right rhythmically. And that’s another reason I like conjunctive lists of threes, the rhythm.’ The beat and the rhythm and the pulse.
Atwood, Margaret, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, (London: Virago Press, 2009)
Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image Music Text, trans. by Stephen Heath, (London: FontanaPress, 1993), pp. 142-148
Cole, Peter, ‘How Journalists Write’, in How to Write, ed. by Philip Oltermann, (London: Guardian Books, 2009), pp. 108-111, 120-5
Gibson, William, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 211’, in The Paris Review, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6089/the-art-of-fiction-no-211-william-gibson [accessed 14 February 2015]
Hall, Stuart, ‘Encoding, Decoding’, in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. by Simon During, (London: Routledge, 1993) pp.507-517
James, PD, ‘On Writing: Authors Reveal the Secrets of Their Craft’, The Guardian [on-line] available from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/authors-secrets-writing [accessed 12 May 2015]
King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012)
Morrison, Toni and others, Burn This Book, ed. by Toni Morrison, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012)