written for a class last Winter
An Audience of One or One Thousand; Self Writing and the Imaginary Audience
When we sit down to write we do so in spite of the many things that obstruct and distract us. Our emotions slow us down, our worries busy our mind and drown out creative thoughts, the physical world with its cleaning, bills, eating, sleeping, and working keeps us from having the quiet time to think, to write. But, in spite of all of this we still write. We write prose, poetry, letters, emails, texts, grocery lists, all sorts of different words with different meanings and purposes. When is writing a creative medium and when is it a utilitarian medium? Better yet, ask the question; when is it both? For creative writing can be both utilitarian and creative.
One way in which creative writing can be utilitarian is when we write to an imaginary audience of our construction. We can build a paper or a prosaic piece of rhetoric around a topic of our choice with an audience of our choice. We can build an audience of one or one thousand. They can be our closest loved ones, our selves, friends or total strangers. The audience only matters from a standpoint of what we want or need to write.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote novels, essays, and poetry. He drew pictures and scribbles. All this while smoking pack after pack of Pall Mall unfiltered. At the end of his life he would often quip during interviews that he was going to sue the cigarette company because they promised all these years that the cigarettes would kill him and yet here he was still alive. He wrote as if he was sitting with you telling you the story. His audience tended to be the imaginary person in the other chair in his studio, occasionally he would reveal himself in his books such as Breakfast of Champions when he appears in the restaurant attached to the hotel and becomes for a moment his own audience. Like Vonnegut I often write to an audience that exists only in my mind.
I often write to a man that has been dead these last 43 years because it has the effect of centering me when feeling stressed, of focusing me when unfocused. I can say what I want, ask anything as long as I don’t expect an answer or a ready solution. There will be no repartee. I will not get a pat on the back and a good job, but these things I never expected from a father that left for good 43 year ago. How can you? You cannot, but maybe you can answer your own questions, and pat your self on the back occasionally.
Isn’t most self-writing congratulatory? Justifying your way of thinking or trying to explain it to the no one that is your audience mostly to have a better handle on it yourself? Yes most self-writing seeks the adulation and congratulation that is missing from others. An audience of one that may never read it allows for reflection and thought processes. A letter written to my father is just one such document of self-reflection and justification;
I don’t expect you to get this letter, nor do I expect you to answer but I am writing to you anyway to speak to you since we never got to speak when you were alive. I’m sure that you held me at one time and spoke to me but as I was too young by the time mother walked out of the house you shared taking my to St Louis I never returned your conversation.
It was a short time later that you went to bed early, not feeling well, while your friends went out. When they came home you had left us. You were still lying there in that bed but there was no you left in you. You never woke up. I don’t remember us coming home for the funeral but I’ve seen pictures so I know we did. I played with my brother for the last time until I was seven, and saw my Grandfather Kieth and my Grandmother Olive. This was probably the last time either my mother or herself saw Olive alive.
In your dying we were robbed of your essence, your person, the music of your being. You were robbed of your children, of a walk down he sidewalk, noisy moments of discovery, singing us to sleep. Sometimes as I look at my jack I wonder what it would have been like for him to have a grandfather, what it would have been like for you to become a grandfather. You have four grandchildren now; my Jackie and Isabella and Keith’s James, named for you, and Jessie.
Is there something out there? Are you still there in any other part of the world than the memories of the smaller and smaller group you left behind? As the people who actually know you gradually pass away, and forget about the effect you may have had on them is your presence on this planet slowly diminishing?
I ask these questions of you because it is you that has left this mortal coil, what is the meaning and can I really get an answer from someone dead forty three years? Is there some piece of you still out there outside of me or is everything that you are rotting in that grave some 200 miles North of me?
I don't believe in God. Not the way Grandfather did. I am not an Atheist because I refuse to say that there is nothing else out there but I find most religion a big ball of blame. People need reasons for everything; "Why did he take my son?" "Why did he take my father?" because we don't want to think that these things are random. We desire order in a universe that tends towards chaos. We seek answers continually to the universe around us when in reality it is far to large for our minds to wrap around it.
The big bang, the ether, string theory, these are all things that we use to keep us going. Einstein's one downfall was trying to search for a theory of everything, for when we find that we will find the essence of God and mankind was never meant to know that. People pour through ancient texts and swear to have found the one truth while happily ignoring several others sometimes in the very next chapter. They Condemn gays due to Leviticus, passing over the passage on stoning a woman to death for adultery. And yet it still remains a mystery and anyone who claims it isn’t is either not being truthful or needs some looking after.
One looks to the heavens and ponders what happens to those that pass on. That there is more to this life than our bodies walking around I know for I have seen the unexplainable. This is however how it should be; Unexplainable. When we pass on it is better that we not know to where we go. There is no heaven, there is no hell, no streets of Gold, no 42 virgins, no fire and brimstone, no red caped hooves menacing demons. We see the echoes everyday of those that came before. The way someone brushes their hair that is the same as their parents, the inflection of words passed down as we learned to talk.
I write all this to explain in part why I'm writing to someone who has been gone for over forty years. Most of your echo is gone. I never really knew what you looked like so I have no face to forget, no smile and loving nickname, but even though you left before I had a chance to know you I love you and miss you just the same.
Love, Your son,
Jason Vincent Alexander Murray
This letter is written to a fictional audience, since the recipient, my father, will never, can never, read them, but isn’t every audience in prose a fictional audience? As Walter J. Ong points out in quoting Henry James in his article The Writers Audience is Always Fiction, (Ong) the writer is inventing his reader as much as he is inventing his characters. We imagine what our audience is like. We imagine what the might be drinking, or eating as they read. We imagine what they might say later to a friend about what they just read. The reader while reading the writer’s work sits and imagines who may have written. Is it the imagined imagining the imaginer?
Much screenwriting, and playwriting is playing to a fictional audience. To create scenes and conversations between people that may or may not have existed in one time or another. These plays, or scripts often have the added benefit of allowing their writer to get across a point without coming right out and saying it. No one in the movie Karate Kid ever says directly that to stand up to a challenge or adversity will make you a better person in the end but that is the not so indirect point made in the movie. Plato wrote an imaginary conversation between two predecessors of his talking about an imaginary speech in order to get across his ideas on rhetoric and the place of a man of learning in his society without it simply being a speech of his own ideas.
That in its essence is the difficulty of rhetoric. To write compellingly, so that someone will want to read it even if it is never meant to be read by anyone but you and your dead father. To overcome the difficulties placed on us by our schedule and our environment and write, convincingly, clearly, and comprehensively.
Ong, Walter. The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction. PMLA Vol. 9, No.1 (Jan. 1975) pp. 9-21. WEB. 06 February, 2012.
Plato. Phaedrus. MIT Classics. Web 18 January, 2012