– Your attention, please

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.

8 thoughts on “– Your attention, please

  1. This post is interesting in light of JD Salinger’s death yesterday. He was a writer who seemed to want attention early in his career and it was well deserved, I believe. After he gained attention, he became disillusioned (or something far more complex than that) and then became equally famous for shunning attention, both literary and personal.

    I still want to know what writing (if any) he left in that little house in Cornish, but, even in death, he doesn’t want the world to ever know.


    • It would be interesting to find out Salinger’s motivation for writing. I know he shunned personal attention, but I did not know enough about him to know that he disliked attention for his work.

      After I wrote the post, I continued to think about the investment of one’s self in the work, and does a person want attention for the self, or for the work, or both, and can we even pull those apart?

      Pynchon seems to be good at keeping the self private while garnering deserved attention for the work. It must be deliberate on his part.

      I still don’t know how or why a person could write, without wanting some sort of attention for the work. I’ll keep this as an open question.

  2. “Where is joy? Joy [should be] in frogs, not in the idea of people looking at my frog poem.” — Sylvia Plath, journal entry January 1959

  3. Actually I added the “should be.” Fairly often Plath tells herself that she should take joy in merely observing and then writing about nature, people, etc. and not to get caught up in thinking about where a poem will be published, who will read it, whether another poet has had more poems published in that particular journal or magazine than she has, etc. She is extremely conscious of the fact that she wants the world’s attention and praise but keeps telling herself that a “true poet” she should not, should be more selfless.

  4. I, too, thought of Salinger when I read your post, Jane. I was so surprised in an NPR story I heard after his death to hear that he’d said he no longer publishd because he wanted to “keep it for [him]self.”

    I’m not sure I really understand what he meant by that, in part because I view writing as a means to begin a conversation, or at least to trigger a thought process on the part of the reader. So to preempt that transaction altogether–well, as you note above, I’m not quite sure I understand what his motivation to write *was*, then.

    So, I don’t think there’s anything inherently selfish about your wanting “attention”–you want your *words* to get the attention, to provoke the thought, the conversation. That seems about as far from selfishness as possible. If we cook a nice meal, we might hope that people compliment us on it, but fundamentally, we also want to feed them.

  5. In my opinion it all depends on the desired end result – what do you ultimately want to happen as a result of what you are writing? Is the goal that something about the reader will change, that the reader will desire to change, OR is the goal that the reader will simply appreciate a talented writer?

    I just wanted to post something; I never read blogs but started reading this one because I thought you were going to be my first college professor on the east coast. I am beginning to learn how to write and how to read and ask good questions and I love it.

  6. Pingback: Hey Tim from St. Louis, This One’s for You « Grammar Piano

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