June 20, 2011

Taking Responsibility for Your Audience

Friday’s video with Rob Kapilow is so rich and wonderful, I thought I’d pick up on another idea he highlights, and that’s about our responsibility to our audiences.

In that video at about 7:40, Rob talks about realizing that he had been playing this particular piece of piano music forever, but he had not actually heard it, and if he hadn’t really listened and heard it, how in the world could a regular audience have any hope of detecting the wonderful nuances that the composer intended? The hundreds of small inspired choices composers make go over most people’s heads. And then Rob made it his mission to educate audiences ~ and he’s so so good at it. He’s entertaining and intelligent and wonderful.

And then (at 11:40) he talks about a retreat he went on with Hallmark Greeting Cards. He quoted a communications expert who spoke at the event:

Most of us think that self-expression happens here [pointing to himself]. It’s all about our content, what we want to say, how we project our voice. But self-expression doesn’t happen here [again pointing to himself]; it happens out there [gesturing to the audience]. … Try taking responsibility for how people listen you.

For Rob, that is the issue with classical music ~ everyone is focused on the wrong side of the footlights. If people aren’t hearing those subtleties, you are expressing nothing. That’s why it became his mission to teach the subtleties of the art.

This, once again, applies so much to writing.

There are two ends of the spectrum. There are those who write strictly for the market. Sure, they may be good writers and are artful, but they do not follow their heart ~ they follow their pocketbook or the market or someone else. All valid reasons sure, but I don’t think it will be their best work. Then there are those who are doing “their art” ~ screw audiences. If anyone wants to try and suss out what the writer is saying, it’s up to the reader, and the writer won’t help out a bit. (The modernist poet Ezra Pound is first among this type of writer. Joyce is this way also. But for some reason I hold it against Pound but not Joyce. Maybe because Joyce wrote “The Dead.”) I am offended by writers who totally ignore their readers.

I’m in the middle, and I believe that it is our responsibility, like Rob says, to help your audience understand you. This takes the form of satisfying genre convention, using good technique and grammar, and “teaching your reader how to read you.” I do believe there are times where a writer is by necessity difficult ~ perhaps your trying to convey a difficult and complex concept ~ but deliberate showy obscurity is the height of selfishness, in my book.

Besides, as a writer, you need to be outwardly focused, don’t you? I mean, what’s the point of me me me all the time? Isn’t writing about connection? About being a spokesman for the world?

It is definitely our responsibility to hold up our half of the writer-reader compact, to be a kind and considerate partner in this exchange.

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