October 13, 2015

On the subjectivity of writing

Chuck on your favourite song for a friend and listen to how much they just won’t shut up throughout the whole thing. This tells us one thing: truth and beauty are subjective.

When it comes down to it, everything is. It’s why fantastic TV shows are cancelled in their first season while Jersey Shore has reached its sixth. It’s why musicians of staggering genius are jamming away in small bars while boy bands steal the stage (though that could all come simply down to monetary factors).

People’s tastes vary, and you can’t write to please everyone. It’s impossible, and pointless to try. A while ago I showed someone a draft of a story I was writing. By and large, he liked the piece, but highlighted a sentence with the note: “I’d write this differently.”

He didn’t say how, and I didn’t ask. I was curious, but it seemed a mute point. I could throw a rock at someone and show them the sentence and they’d probably say the same thing. Or they’d substitute a word. Or they’d wipe the whole thing away.

If you’re writing for an audience of one, it’s either yourself or you’re using one person as the model of your audience. The trouble arrives for most writers, however, when they write to please a crowd. When they open themselves up to critique and have ten or more voices instructing them as to what works and what doesn’t.

If you’ve ever sat through a writers’ workshopping session, you’ll see this in action. One person will like this sentence or image, another won’t. Another will find it the crux of the entire story and suggest you use it as the story’s frame, another will ask you what it means.

This isn’t limited to workshopping circles. Some time ago I had a short story published by one of the big publishing houses. I commenced an initial round of edits with the editor, and we got the story nice and tight (much tighter than I’d managed on my own). As we neared the final draft, she was called away from the position and another editor took over.

She returned the manuscript with a great deal of fantastic suggestions as to how to strengthen the plot or explain character motivations and actions. I agreed with every one of her suggestions. The problem was that they were all in that first draft, and had all been removed by the first editor. I returned her draft with one reply repeated throughout: “This was actually in the original draft.”

The experience drove home just how subjective writing is, and how what one person thinks is a superfluous line can keep someone else reading. As a writer, we can already drive ourselves to the brink of madness with second guessing. And when we offer our work to an editor, in essence, we’re giving them permission to make these choices for us.

But when you’re at that initial drafting stage, there is a spark – a narrative voice – that knows what the story’s meant to be. If you trust in that voice foremost, and then take the advice of others secondarily, you’ll save yourself a lot of revision and redrafting. That revision and redrafting will still need to take place, but you won’t be tempted to begin it before your first draft is complete.

And heed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice in closing:

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, you will get pneumonia.”


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