When I graduated from college the first time with an Associates degree there was no such thing as a Department of Continuing Education. I had an awareness of and affinity for lifelong learning as I reached for my diploma on that sunny June day; but my first matriculation was so long ago that academia hadn’t learned how to make money yet. Continuing Ed had just been introduced to those non-traditional older learners at the start of my second time around ten years later. But since I wanted a Bachelor’s degree that time, I had to go the conventional route even though I was a decade older than my classmates. There was a business writing class offered as part of the English requirement, and believing I knew everything about writing already, I thought that would be a good way to lighten my academic load. Working and matriculating (again) part-time and mothering two boys full-time had created the desire (and need) for extra slack in my schedule. What a seduction that business writing course turned out to be.
English was my favorite subject in high school thanks to a mentor who paid attention to me. I was convinced I must be just as much in love with Shakespeare as she was. That passion traveled easily with me to college the first time I went, when I acquired another mentor whose subject was English. Shakespeare influenced me again that year through my new mentor, and creative writing courses of all kinds filled out my elective choices as an English major. I left those two years of the Associate’s degree with a powerful directive to write for myself and humanity as a whole. If I was discovering truth through my efforts at plumbing my personal depths then the results were to benefit everyone as well. Shakespeare said so. If I was true to myself I couldn’t be false to anyone. I couldn’t pick one special group of listeners if I wanted to be a real writer.
Pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in business ten years later, the first week of assignments in my business writing class persuaded me that I now had to learn to write for a target audience. After an initial resistance I came to view it as a game. How well could you convince certain people of your point of view? With practice I excelled at marketing with words and was delighted to be paid for it. I spent most of my adult work life playing that game. I forgot completely about writing for personal truth, and never considered that if I addressed a specific audience, there were going to be people left out of the conversation by definition. It never occurred to me that writing certain things in a certain way for certain people was letting down my mentors and Shakespeare, to say nothing of myself. That is, until I decided it was time for a change.
Recently I’ve had discussions with other creative writers about writing to an audience. That’s the business of business; not writing. No matter how skilled their writing may be, it’s hard to trust an author with a financial agenda. One of my writer friends has pointed out that the argument to write to a chosen audience is self-perpetuating; especially in academia. The necessity to be published in order to teach also creates the same circular argument that pulls down creative writers with the centrifugal force of peer pressure. Having an audience in mind when we write is all about the packaging but seldom what’s inside.
It’s a fine line over a deep chasm, and I know what you’re thinking now. Aren’t my blog essays like this one expressing a “fervently, if slyly advocated point of view” as personal essayist David Rakoff puts it so well? Of course they are. But I write them for me, because I want to, and for anyone who wants to read them and join the discussion. That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing periodically for this blog. It encourages the self-expression and personal opinion of anyone with access to the internet. I write for everyone in an open forum and especially for me. If I have to admit to having any audience in mind when I write these days, I can honestly say it’s both an audience of everyone and one. I think even Shakespeare would have been satisfied with that. But if not, it doesn’t matter. I’m not writing for him anyway.
By Sidney S. Stark