It’s mid-October, and the dance studio buzzes with pre-show jabber: of sections that still challenge us in our now-memorized routines, of costume and prop woes. I’m spending more time there, renting the smaller rehearsal studio for practice sessions with fellow dancers. Classes have shifted focus to the fine-tuning and cleaning-up of routines, and much like in a writing workshop, we engage in somewhat nerve-wracking feedback sessions. Half the class splits up and sits along the mirror to watch while the other half performs, and vice versa. Afterward, the “audience” goes down the line and shares observations on what the dancers did well and what could be better—from technique to timing to expression. Sometimes we’re given a partner to focus on for individual notes.
The feedback-giving isn’t necessarily my favorite part of this preparation-for-performance process, but other than videotaping oneself in practice (an effective tactic) there are few other ways to see what one needs to improve on, and what the group as a whole could be doing better. Just like you wouldn’t want to send out a new short story without another pair of eyes reading it first, you probably wouldn’t want to perform without running the number a few times for each other, at least.
Much has been debated about the pitfalls of “workshopping” in the creative writing classroom—Anis Shivani’s just-released Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics and Controversies is but one example—and I won’t delve into that here. And while I would agree that sometimes I yearn for more critical feedback during these pre-performance dance classes, that sometimes I sense classmates holding back or being too nice, there is also the question of appropriateness. Most are taking dance to escape the stress in their lives, to have fun and build confidence in themselves; they are not seeking to make dance a professional career. Whenever an artist finds oneself in the position to comment upon another’s work, it’s wise to ask, what kind of feedback is the other seeking? A community writing workshop attendee is usually not seeking an MFA-minded critique. In providing feedback, the situation the art is created by and for is just as important to keep in mind as the work itself.
Which brings me to another much-discussed question—who are we making art for, audience or the self? Much of the time the impulse to create begins with the self, the desire for self-exploration or satisfaction, but at what point exactly does the creator’s responsibility to what he or she creates become much more?
A few years back I attended an AWP panel in which a former professor of mine from UCF was joined by her literary agent and editor. The professor, who has several novels published by Simon & Schuster, was agreeing with her agent that a fiction writer who wants to succeed in commercial publishing must consider her audience—not to expressly write toward trends, but to be aware of them, and to consider why such trends might have become prevalent in the collective imagination of readers.
Afterward I had dinner with friends, and another creative writing professor who had also attended the panel railed against what had been said. A writer has to write for herself first, she argued, and to put the reader before the creator was an uncalled for and dangerous misalignment. I halfway agreed with the point she was making, but I understood what the panel had been articulating as well. Didn’t the answer lie somewhere in both camps, that the creator ought to serve both self and audience?
Creation has got to start with the self, I agree. But as one advances in skill and mastery, the more quickly the question of audience gains relevancy. For unless the writer’s aim is for her notebooks to never see the light of day or for the dancer to only shimmy and hagala around her living room, audience is of supreme importance (see my previous essay, “From Page to Stage” for more on this). It is in part a testament to how far someone has come in the development of his or her talents and ability, something to be proud of—for if you, the artist, didn’t have something special worth sharing, the question of audience wouldn’t matter. But when you do have something worth the sustained attention and energy of others and you decide to share that creation with the world, the respect and responsibility to audience becomes very important. My former professor and published author wasn’t saying, Never write to please yourself. She was saying, Write for yourself, and also consider what captivates an audience. Pay attention to that, because you might just learn something.
In other words, just how far you want to go in pushing the boundaries of your art is as important as what type of audience you’re seeking to gain for your work. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; as you grow, one bears its influence the other, and vice versa.
One of the biggest wake-up calls of my MFA journey was when my faculty advisor, Douglas Glover, wrote in response to a lackluster packet of mine, “Where are the great stories of love and death?” The question stunned me; no mentor had dared ask this before. And he was entirely right. I had been obliviously scribbling anecdotes and stories that didn’t matter much, thin scenarios which failed to face the heart of whatever might be at stake in the situation. For months afterward I scrawled his question in the top margin of my notebooks before starting a new fiction. I’ve scrutinized long and hard new ideas ever since Glover’s comment. There’s a reason plots like the Odyssey and Romeo & Juliet have been popular for hundreds of years, after all, and there are countless ways to make them new and relevant for today’s audiences while still pleasing you, the writer, immeasurably. And while the small press world provides a much-needed haven for “quiet” or experimental fiction that wouldn’t succeed commercially because big publishers refuse to back it and because such work speaks to a more niche audience, I’ve noticed a backlash at times, too, against books that are literary, commercial, and successful.
Most artists are reluctant to observe this, though, and perhaps with good reason—it is hard enough to wrap your head around what’s not working or less appealing in your own work, let alone how one might generate quality work that also has wide audience allure. But I challenge you to do it. Think about how often a story that has been your own personal favorite struggles to find a home at a literary journal. This has happened to me countless times, and I’m still shocked by how off my barometer can be about this, while other stories that were generated from a writing exercise or dashed off in a whim, ones that I didn’t put nearly the heart and soul into, are reader favorites. Recently my boyfriend encouraged me to observe this more closely, to take note that my short story “Shadow Boxes,” which was runner-up a dozen times in contests and finally won the Bosque Fiction Award this year, obviously resonated big-time with readers. The story is set in Pennsylvania, where I grew up and the place I am most reluctant to write about. “You should write about Pennsylvania more,” he suggests. “I’ll bet there’s a lot of untapped richness there to be explored.”
Maybe he’s right. At least it’s difficult to argue against this when the story’s track record speaks for itself, that something powerful derived from that setting and characters—whether I’m enthusiastic to write about Pennsylvania, and I find it “fulfilling” or not. Likely I’m avoiding some knots in my past that I’m reluctant to face emotionally. Which means some of them would probably make for worthwhile fiction.
Back at the dance studio, we undertake more uncomfortable rituals in preparation for the big show. We flip the routine around and perform to the back of the room, without the mirror, which is the true test of how well we know the choreography and results in more than a few blunders, laughs, and frustrations. But often we perform better that way, our reflections robbed from us; blind to the movements we are executing, we sink further into the emotions and the music. By the time dress rehearsal week arrives and we perform run-throughs in full costume, we’ll have worked out the glitches. As we assemble for our group portrait we’ll exchange proud, bewildered looks at how through dedicated practice and revision, we could produce something so glorious and beyond ourselves, worthy of a hungry, hopeful audience.