Thank you for your attention to my work.
That’s the line that ended the cover letter I sent with an essay to an editor who had read “Tethered” online, dropped me an e-mail, and encouraged me to send her something else. (I finally did.)
I stared at that sentence for a long time. Yes, it is gracious — anyone who went to public school in an era when students learned to compose and format a letter (do you know what the five parts are called?) — and concludes the body of the letter appropriately.
I wondered, though, as I stared and stared at the line, if that’s what I really want: attention.
A writer cannot actually be a writer without an audience. While I and others might write to organize our thoughts (see Seth Godin), I could also do that in a private journal. But that for me would not be enough. An idea written down is not somehow alive unless someone reads it.
Is that the secret function of an audience? Attention? I think of that as something children want. And yet there I was, grateful for it.
Justine Musk, at Tribal Writer, describes the “attention transaction” between writer and readers. I like her honesty. This transaction, Musk says, “is an unequal distribution since, as the writer, I am (hopefully) getting attention from other readers as well, while you are getting what is kind of an illusion of my attention.”
Even though I thanked one editor for her attention to my work — and I really meant it — what I want is a multiple of that. I want the editor’s attention to lead to the attention of many more readers. If it only takes one writer and one reader to complete a communication, then why do I want so much more? Although I am not a child and have never wished to be one again, is my impulse childish or springing from childhood?
In teaching writing to undergraduates, we often exhort them to consider the audience. Attention to the audience makes for more powerful work, more effective writing.
So here we have two sides attending to each other. A reader gives a writer his attention; a writer considers her audience.
Does a writer master this attention game, however, as a way of accruing more to herself? In other words, do I become better and better at considering my audience not purely out of generosity or thoughtfulness, but as a strategy for getting what I want?
Ah. I will write well and deliberately so, because I want a reader to want what I’m offering. I want many readers to want what I’m offering.
I am suspicious of my own motives.