When Student Writers Learn That They Must Make Their Audience Care
by Terry Heick
That a reader doesn’t have any interest in what they’re reading would be a pretty harsh assumption to make. But it’s an idea David Foster Wallace felt was important to get across to writers right off the bat, as he did in the following course description for his now-famous English 183D.
“English 183D is a workshop course in creative nonfiction, which term denotes a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on. The term’s constituent words suggest a conceptual axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As nonfiction, the works are connected to actual states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reliable extent. If, for example, a certain event is alleged to have occurred, it must really have occurred; if a proposition is asserted, the reader expects some proof of (or argument for) its accuracy. At the same time, the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel. An advantage of the workshop format is that it will allow you to hear what twelve reasonably intelligent adults have been induced to think and feel about each essay you write for the course.”
The Selfishness Of Writing
In the unparagraphed and sweeping take on nonfiction as a genre (specifically creative nonfiction, a nascent but non-digital term), Wallace took on the idea of the writer-reader relationship, and immediately clarified the goal of creative nonfiction: to communicate.
Sounds standard, but this is an important distinction. The goal of writing (at least in this narrow genre) isn’t self-expression, where you grab a microphone and talk to a crowded stadium. Rather, creative nonfiction is about communication. Relaying this idea to this audience for this purpose, and without their skill and affection, no one may ever care.
What is the definition of creative nonfiction? DFW describes is as “a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on.”
In short, nonfiction, usually prose, that is somehow playful with the form–the opposite of academic writing. There is overlap between creative nonfiction and the way students treat social media. Social media is a bit like a high school locker but turned inside out. This is what I love, this is what I want others to see about me, this is what I’m feeling.
I. Me. Mine. My. Myself.
Consider the smashing contrast, then, between this digital narcissism, and what Wallace saw as the function of creative nonfiction–to “instruct… or to entertain…to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse.” One is for me, the other is for you. The form is just a strategy.
Unfortunately, when students are conditioned–whether through premature praise, social media, or simply youthful innocence–to believe that someone beyond their mom or teacher might be genuinely interested in their ideas, belief system, and any communication of the same–it erodes their empathy with the reader, and limits the power of their writing. They’re tricked right from the beginning into thinking someone is waiting at the end of the line. They learn to write for teachers, grades, or, worse, “self-expression.”
And they absolutely need–and deserve to–express themselves. But writing everything as if everyone cares is an impossible position to communicate from, and sets the student up for all kinds of problems, from tone to research, diction to supporting details, theme and thesis to syntax and idea organization. The whole writing process is different when you’re writing to someone that you assume cares. It’s the principal that guides Apple’s marketing–that is, an historically minimal and minimalist approach–because people want their products, it changes how they market them.
Genius may come from selfish expression that has little regard for “demographics” and is simply done for the sake of the “thing” itself, but the other side of that is that writing is really, really hard. Great writing is great work.
The sooner we can get students to buy into the idea that readers may not care about what they write, the sooner they can be humbled into a genius mindset that connects themselves, their topic, their audience, and the tools of a writer’s craft as a matter of careful design, because that’s what writing is.
Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks; Creative Nonfiction: If Students Wrote As If No One Cared