Audience matters

This week I read a great interview in The Rumpus in which Nanette Vonnegut said her father always kept his audience in mind while writing. He had a very specific audience: his sister. “He got her attention because he was funny,” Nanette said. “When you see them together, there’s just so much love there.” Nanette went on to say her audience includes her own sister, as well as her father.

Both writers had such clear answers to the question of audience that I asked myself (for the hundredth time) who might be mine. Do I even have one? Is it a deal-breaker if I don’t?

We spend a lot of time talking about target audiences at work. As a marketing copywriter, I have to tailor each message to a particular persona in order for it to even have a chance of succeeding. These personas represent hours upon hours of competitive research, customer interviews and analysis, and they’re usually pretty accurate and effective. So, shouldn’t I at least attempt the same kind of targeting for my creative writing? It seems perfectly logical, but so far I’ve resisted it.

Maybe because the notion of an audience seems incongruous with the solitude of the writing process. Or maybe because I simply don’t have a real audience of loyal readers. The Vonneguts shared their work directly with their audiences, but I don’t have someone in my life (yet) who reads everything I write. I’m lucky enough to have lots of enthusiastic Facebook friends who “like” my work when I occasionally post links to it — but because I know them personally, I feel like they don’t really count.

And maybe that’s my ultimate hang-up. I think I subconsciously assume that an audience should constitute strangers.  But I’ve never seen the readership demographics for the handful of journals that have published my work. I can’t pinpoint one specific person who likes my stories. So what? I make up all my characters, so why not make up my reader, too?

One of my teachers once said he writes for a middle-aged woman in Kansas. Not anyone specific. He creates her character in his mind when he thinks of his readers. Personally, I’m not sure any middle-aged woman in Kansas would like my writing. At least not all of it. Maybe I need a different version of her. Maybe several versions. Like her niece, who lives in an urban studio apartment and sits by her window late at night. And her former lover, who still thinks of her when he hikes the Pacific Crest Trail every summer. And her dying mother, who holds life’s many secrets close to heart, in spite of how much they hurt.

I think it will help to imagine these people when I write. To imagine them reading one of my stories on the train or at the laundromat, and the memories that spring to mind for them between the lines. To imagine my stories possibly having a life beyond the page. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

These readers seem real to me. And who knows, maybe they are.

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