Class assigned blog post 3
Last week in class, our professor posed the question: “According to Walter Ong, when you write, your audience is always fiction. Do you agree?” I did not.
After class, I talked with a classmate, saying I thought the idea that our audience is always fiction is bullshit. I mean, like everything when it comes to writing, it depends on the situation, the rhetorical context, right? I said, “Well, what about personal poetry. Poems you write for yourself or one other person. If I write a poem for my mom that only my mom is going to see…My mom isn’t fictional.”
He said (more or less), “Yes, but you don’t know your mom 100%. You’re writing to an idealized version of her. You’re writing to the mom that you know or imagine, but not the mom that actually is.”
We then went on to talk about how you know yourself better than others because you know your deepest desires and thoughts better than others, but they know you better because they can look at you and see how you really are without all the insecurities to cloud their vision. But then again, you don’t really know yourself, do you? We all discover new things about ourselves every day.
But apparently that is not what Walter Ong’s article is about. Ong says that the difference between speaking and writing is that for the speaker, the audience is present, whereas, “for the writer, the audience is simply further away, in time or space or both.” Not only is the writer’s audience rarely present, but it shouldn’t be present. When you write, you usually want to be alone, yes?
He goes on to explain that one of the reasons we have a hard time thinking about what to write is because we aren’t sure who would want to hear what we have to say. If no one wants to hear what we have to say, then what we have to say isn’t worth it, right? Well, that’s why we make up our audience. We make up an idealized audience that would want to know what we have to say. This all makes sense, but I was kind of expecting Ong to talk more about what my friend said. I was disappointed that Ong didn’t talk about the levels to which we know someone and how, even if they aren’t an audience, we fictionalize people all the time. When we think about what they would say or do in certain situations, how they would react, how we want them to react….We’re making it all up. Sure, we can probably guess accurately, but we can never know for sure what someone else would think or know or do or feel.
Talking about audience, I remember an article I read when I was in 8th grade. It was called “Blood from a Stone” by author Jennifer Armstrong. In it, she explains that she does not feel that she has a responsibility to her readers because she cannot possibly predict who will read her book. If she uses a word that one of her readers doesn’t know, does that mean she shouldn’t have used that word? If she writes a book geared toward adults and a child picks it up, reads it, and is confused or upset, should she have not written it? “No. This strikes me as absurd. I can’t know who will read my books, and therefore, I can’t write explicitly for them.” She says that if she focuses on making the book the best it can be “with consideration only for its own requirements” rather than pandering to the masses, then she will create something actually worth reading.
I agree that as a writer you should not just write what you think some random fictionalized audience wants to hear. By just writing what you think someone wants to hear, you won’t be pushing any boundaries, and therefore you won’t be creating anything new and dangerous. Dangerous in the way that it produces new ways to think about things, gets the readers to think outside the box. Gets the readers to actually stop and think about the world they live in and take notice of the things that are going on, things that may need to be changed.
But it is still important to consider your audience. It helps focus your writing. Sure, you’ll never know exactly who is going to read your writing, but that’s okay. So what if someone who wasn’t in your target audience reads it? At worst, they’ll hate what you have to say, or won’t understand it, or will just stop reading. At best…they won’t understand it. But then they’ll think about it. And they’ll research it. And they’ll start to understand. Jennifer Armstrong said, “If there is a child who doesn’t know the word ‘schooner’ should I leave it out for fear of hurting his intellectual self-esteem?” No. Leave it in. If the kid doesn’t know the word, he’ll ask his parents. Or he’ll look it up. I didn’t know a shit ton of the words Walter Ong used in “The Writer’s Audience is Always Fiction,” so I looked them up. The possibility of someone not in the intended audience reading your writing doesn’t mean you can just stop thinking about audience all together. To me, that just seems like it would make writing harder. Suddenly, instead of a fictionalized, yet focused audience, your audience is the world. It’s much harder to write for the world.