Love Thy Reader (Part 1)

[My call for topics last week yielded some great ideas. Please, keep them coming. You can suggest topics for future issues of The Habit by sending me an email here.]

Last week we talked about ways to move beyond the style of a "sophisticated fifth-grader." A reader named Stacey asked another question about writing like a grown-up, but I think it gets even closer to the heart of the matter.

Essays.  Academic writing.  Is there a difference between an essay for school and an essay for readers (not writing for a teacher).  Do all essays need a thesis statement?

Most of us learn to write in an academic setting. Teachers give us assignments. We complete those assignments. They correct us. They congratulate us. We learn to give them what they're looking for so that they give us what we're looking for: good grades, approval, permission to advance to the next grade, perhaps a letter of recommendation. If you stay in the academic world, you write articles and books that get you jobs and promotions and tenure and, hopefully, the respect and awe of your peers.

The problem with academic writing is not that it's overly formulaic or that it stifles creativity. Forms and formulas provide frameworks in which creativity can grow; the sonnet is a formula, but it doesn't appear to have stifled William Shakespeare's creativity one bit. For the less confident or "creative" student-writer, the formulas of academic writing are a godsend. We should probably erect a monument to the person who invented the five-paragraph essay.

No, the problem with academic writing goes much deeper than the formulas and rules and thesis statements, which are as easily put aside as a set of training wheels. The problem with academic writing is that it conditions us to write for what we can get rather than to write for what we can give.

At its best, writing is an act of love. I care about a subject, I care about a reader, and I take joy in introducing them to one another. The best writing gives the reader something he couldn't have gotten otherwise, even if it's just a new perspective on a subject he is already familiar with.

In an academic environment, we necessarily unhitch writing from loving. That's not to say that a student can't write out of love for the subject matter or even love for the teacher, but we have to create space for students to practice writing and thinking even if they don't love what they're writing and thinking about. Later this week I will be receiving essays about Milton's Paradise Lost from my students at New College Franklin. Most of those students won't tell me anything I don't already know about Milton. Some of them won't love Milton or his poem. It's possible, I suppose, that some of them won't even love me. But none of those shortcomings would disqualify them from making good grades on their papers. The carrots and sticks of the academic world don't  have much to do with loving the material or loving the reader. I can hardly say, "If you aren't going to give me anything new about this subject matter, don't bother writing an essay about Milton"--though, I will say, when a student does give me some new truth or perspective in an essay, I rejoice and sing "For He (or She)'s a Jolly Good Fellow (or Person)!"

In a non-academic setting, however, I would most certainly tell a writer not to bother writing on a subject if he doesn't have anything new and fresh to give me. I guess that's not fair. Write about whatever you want to write about. But don't expect your reader to connect with your writing if there's no love behind it. As Flannery O'Connor said, "It's always wrong of course to say that you can't do this or you can't do that in [writing]. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

There's a whole lot that the writer can get from writing. He can get money, he can get people to do or buy or vote, he can get approval (that's a huge one). Most people write for what they can get, not for what they can give to the reader. And even in the the case of the most loving writer, her motives are probably mixed. My motives are mixed right now: I love the subject of writing, and I love you the best I know how, dear reader, and I'm trying to give you something you couldn't have gotten otherwise. But I also hope you'll like me. And, as long as we're being frank, I hope you'll buy my books or sign up for a writing course next time I announce one.

I have gotten plenty out of writing. In fact, I paid for my honeymoon with the prize money from a writing award in graduate school. (That's not exactly what I mean by "writing for love," but I suppose it's one application.) However, when I focus on what I can get out of writing, all kinds of troubles ensue, not the least of which is anxiety about whether or not I'm going to get what I'm trying to get. When writing is an arena for self-love (or mood management or self-promotion), it quickly becomes an arena for self-loathing. At least that's been my experience. On the other hand, when writing becomes a way of loving the reader, I find that many of those other goods come to me as by-products.

Nine or ten years ago I went through a long bout of writer's block that felt like it was going to ruin me. Maybe I'll tell that story in another issue of The Habit. I was wallowing around in the Slough of Despond when I got an email from a reader who simply said that my earlier books had meant a lot to her, and she really needed this next one (which was already about a year late). She also said that she would be praying from me. That email changed my life. I had been thinking of this writer's block as an individual tragedy, a kind of one-man show of heartache in which I wasn't getting what I needed from the writing process. That email reminded me that I wasn't writing for myself, but for people who, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, needed what I had to give. That reminder broke the log jam, and after having languished for about a year, I knocked out the rest of the book in a few weeks. Self-forgetfulness is the rarest of jewels for the writer, but what a blessing when you get it.

This letter is getting long, and I haven't really gotten around to practicalities. I think I'm going to have to turn this into a two-parter. Next week we'll talk about how this idea of loving your reader can change the way you write. I will also try to convince you that you do, indeed, have something to give your reader that your reader can't get for himself. I may even address thesis statements.

One more thing: this week in the Rabbit Room, my friend Doug McKelvey recently wrote a beautiful piece that addresses this idea of loving the reader. I commend it to you. Here's the link.