Having an indifferent audience can present another problem, especially if you are speaking in front of them. Try lecturing to sleepy students at 2 o’clock in the afternoon sometime. Watch those eyelids flutter.
Misunderstanding the audience can lead to their disappointment, or even your own. When I was in nonprofit development, I spoke at the First Annual Conference on Black Philanthropy, and watched half my audience walk out of the room one at a time because I had completely failed to understand the cultural values shared by most of the people in the room who were not me.
Yesterday, in working with a 13 year old writer, I was reminded of an audience problem that affects, especially, writers of creative nonfiction and memoir. And that problem is knowing an audience too well.
This writer, whom I’ll call Justin, is writing a personal narrative that will be developed into a 3-minute digital story, with voice over and music tracks, and photographs from his own collection. Justin is one of several teens in a local community center involved in making digital stories through my friend Lisa’s business, Storybuilders. His story mentions his mom, siblings, and, most notably, his teacher. The most striking detail in Justin’s notes for the story, in fact, involves the teacher and how she disciplines her students when they’re distracted: she spritzes them with a water bottle.
“That’s a great detail,” I said to Justin. “Where should it go in your story?”
He looked at me with a sideways smile. “Uh uh,” he replied and shook his head. “No way. It’s not going in there.” He kept smiling.
Justin is eager to show his finished story to his teacher, and he is reluctant, therefore, to write revealingly about her. “She’ll cry,” he said.
I suppose the audience problem here is more than familiarity. And the problem is one I happen to think about all the time: What if I want to write about someone who is also one of my readers?
Jimmy graciously has given me carte blanche to write about him as much as and how I want to. (Still, I do offer him the courtesy of a first read.) The kids are another matter altogether. Even though I do write about them here once in a while, I try very hard to draw a line between writing about them as actors in my experience of parenting and writing about them as the leads in their own lives. (The latter I strenuously avoid, even though there are so many aspects of Grace, Lydia, and Eli’s lives that would make good stories. There are some stories that I must leave them to tell, if they ever want to.) A few times I’ve crossed the line, and I’ve taken the stories down. They’ll have to stay in private journal form.
Pat Schneider, in her handbook for writing groups, encourages writers to write honestly, no sugar-coating. That can mean an unflattering detail about another person, and that may be a necessary writer’s choice in order to tell the story. (“It’s your story too,” Schneider might say.) Her one exception? Writing about one’s children. Schneider would be okay with Justin writing about his teacher, but probably not okay with any writing I’ve done about my children.
These policies, and boundary lines, are slippery and need constant negotiating, it seems.
It can also be an interesting writing challenge: how to write honestly, without exploiting another person — a person who may be among one’s readers. Does Justin, for example, need to tell this detail about the teacher in order to convey something important about his own experience? It’s such a great image: the nonviolent aggression of sprayed water. The detail powerfully gets at what it’s like for this boy to be in school.
And yet, is it the only detail that could do this job? There are others he shared with me, and all of them added up to the picture of a child out of step with his classmates and a problem for the teachers. Perhaps it would be enough for Justin to evoke how isolating school is for him without implicating the teacher.
As I was working with Justin to put the finishing touches on his script before he recorded it, he surprised me and reinserted the detail on the teacher. Creatively, he made the right choice. Still, it’s a big risk. He looked mischievous as he retyped it.
I try to imagine the teacher eventually seeing Justin’s story. I wonder if she’ll recognize herself in the action. Will she be offended? Or, will it give her an opportunity to really see herself? What will her experience as audience be like?
Cold spray of truth, perhaps.
Photograph by Grace Guterman