I was happy to read this in the New York Times, in an essay by novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours):
I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.
I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.
We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see…
What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.
I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result.
He describes meeting a very tired divorcée named Helen, holding down three jobs, whose only great diversion in life was reading:
Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.
I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.
Unlike Cunningham, I have never said that I wrote for myself. I always liked Gertrude Stein’s declaration, “I write for myself and for strangers” – because it embarrassed her to have friends read her writing – but in truth I am disappointed if my music is playing and a passerby, any passerby, doesn’t stop to ask, with a twinkle of curiosity, “What is THAT?” I write music that I want to hear, of course, but there are musics that I myself dearly love, like those of Phill Niblock and Stefan Wolpe, that I would never write, because they are esoteric enough to seem predestined for only a narrow specialist appeal, even though it’s wide enough to include me. If that makes me a middlebrow composer, then I’ll proudly wave the middlebrow banner. ”I write for myself” is one of those self-defeating clichés that academia acculturates young composers into, like “The music should speak for itself!” I can’t imagine that any young artist starts out thinking that his work need only bring pleasure to himself. It’s a defense to be used against having failed to engage the interest of others, which happens to us all now and then.
I also liked Cunningham here:
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire….
A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”
This is partly why I can’t get into highly detailed notation. I put staccato dots on a few notes and call a piece finished, and the next day I wake up and look at it and say, “No no, that should be legato!”, and draw in a slur instead, and afterward I’ll change my mind again. The piece changes for me too much in my head to try to obsessively pin it down with interpretive markings. The score is a guide, like lines in a play, not a fixed objet d’art.
Such things should be admitted in the music world more often, and would be, if we were more concerned with being artists and less with being professionals.