Saturday, September 25, 2010

[NOTE FROM BARB: Here is the outline for a talk I gave this weekend at the San Diego Christian Writers Guild Conference. Several people asked me for the notes, so I told them I'd post them.]

Who Is Your Audience? Writing What Your Soul Knows

for the San Diego Christian Writers Conference
September 25, 2010

II. This talk will have three parts.

A) Part One will talk about the question of what it means to write what you know.
B) Part Two will talk about the issue of commerciality. What is it to be commercial – to have mass appeal – such that editors or investors or producers will want to give you money?
C) Part Three will look at the particular moment we are in as writers who are disciples of the Lord and hopefully get some answer to Jesus’ query, “Can you not read the signs of the times?”

III. If there is anything that is clear, it’s that writing is more than any other art form, an attempt to communicate in an articulate way. The sole color on the pallet of the writer is words. Great writing moves immediately from being a rambling monologue, and becomes a dialogue with the reader’s heart and mind. The pictures you create with your words get matched to the reader’s memory and imagination, and he or she begins to edit and highlight and fill-out what you offer from his or her own experience. This happens more or less according to whatever level of history the reader brings to your work.

Having said this, I am not sure I believe I the idea of writing for a demographic. I do basically permit the idea of using fewer and more simpler words and plots for young children. But beyond that, if you are too concerned with writing “for a particular kind of person, you run the risk of pandering. (Except in certain kinds of very specific non-fiction situations: A book for recovering adult alcoholics, or a book for teachers, or a book on how to be a better gambler.)

Great writing is basically just great communication, and it understands that to last and to make a big impact, you should always speak to the reader's humanity, not to their particular moment. Flannery O’Connor was great because she mastered the art of writing from the inside of her readers. She was very conscious of human psychology and the dynamic process that a reader goes on in a story. She wasn’t thinking about writing for Southerners, or for academics, or even for Christians or unbelievers. She was writing to any one who was engaged in the activity of dodging Divine Grace. Basically all of us.

It would be an interesting meditation to consider what Jesus would find if he walked in to the average Christian Publishing House.

“Good Morning. Welcome to Faith House. We Save Your Stories So You Can Save the World.”

“Thank you. My name is Jesus. I’d like to speak to an editor.”

“Okay. Which editor would you like to see?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What kind of things to you write?”

“Mostly stories.”

“For whom?”

“I’m sorry?”

“For whom are your stories meant?”

“Um, humans?”

“Tell me one of your stories.”

“Oh, okay. Well, there was a man who had two sons. Now, the younger son ---“

“Oh, that’s young adult fiction. That’s Larry. First door down the hall.”

So, the Lord walks down the hall.

“Hello, Mr. Jesus, isn’t it? So I understand you have some stories for us. Tell me one.”

“Okay. One day, a man set off on the road to Jericho. But on the way, he was set upon by thieves. They beat him, stripped him and left him for dead –

“Whoa! Just a sec. This is a bit too much for the young adult market. What else do you have?”

“Well, I have one about a man who owns a vineyard that he had leased out to tenants. And when he sends his son to collect the rent, they kill him and –-

“Wait, wait, wait. There you go with that violence stuff again. It’s a bit too much of an edge for us. Do you have any stories where people don’t get killed?”

“Well, yes. I guess. I have one about a woman who loses her gold coin –“

“Great, great! That’s Family Stewardship!”

“And then, she sweeps her whole house to –“

This is Women’s Devotional. That’s Laura down the hall.”

IV. Start with clip from a movie that demonstrates this “writing to the human person” because it speaks to the whole broad audience out there. Tell me, who do you think is the audience of this piece? Here is the opening of “UP.”

V. If an editor tells you to write for a certain demographic, I would nod my head and conclude that they are asking me to be intentionally narrow in my focus. Narrowness is not a descriptor of great writing. (I don’t know about your church, but in the last thirty years mine has gone through an exhausting experimentation process of trying to make special services for “young people”. We’ve been dragged through the antechamber of musical and liturgical hell in pursuit of crowds of keening teenagers who might some day all proclaim with one enthusiastic voice, that this or that service is “cool.” Invariably, the young people demur and if pressed will shrug with a touch of embarrassment that the “Contemporary Worship Service music is kind of, well, lame.” We need to give them more credit that if kids are in Church, they are there as part of the Body of Worshippers and they are willing to join themselves to however the other sheep are bleating. We have a Gregorian Chant revival going on in the Catholic Church….

VI. Idea for this talk came from working with our Act One students – the “problem of commerciality.” Good editors always tell you two seemingly contradictory things:
A) Write what you know, AND
B) What you Write Must Be of Interest to the Market
C) These are not really contradictory

VII. Write What Your Heart Knows
A) What do they mean by, “Write what you know?” I was a nun. I worked in a fish market for a Mormon minister fisherman. I lived in the servants quarters of the Marble House in Newport. I have worked in Hollywood for ten years. I have a family member who is an alcoholic.
B) They mean at one level – DO YOUR HOMEWORK. On this level, editors are bemoaning the writers who literally haven’t earned their place at the table. The writer’s job is to do the research. It is to fill out a new world, or to add fresh details to a world we thought we knew so that we now see it in depth. Research is always doable. It helps me to set a script in Newport, RI because I have already done the research. Don’t set a script in a scuba diving school near the Great Barrier Reef unless you have done your research in the kind of people who become divers, intricacies of scuba gear, diving education approaches, ways divers die, how cool the underwater thing is, Australians, and the Great Barrier Reef. SO, WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE COME TO KNOW ABOUT.

C) But editors and their ilk mean more than this too. Write what you know is an appeal for you to basically write what your soul knows. I was tempted to say “heart” here, particularly because it sounds nice to say “Write What Your heart Knows,” but I mean more than just your emotions. Animals have emotions. Your soul, in the classical sense, is where your intellect, will and desires reside. Your soul is the place where your humanity lives. Write from that place. It is where you brood from – as opposed to just reason. It’s where you dream from. It’s where you suffer from. It’s where you feel remorse from. It is where you choose from. It is where you love from. It is where you pray from. If you write from that place, then you are speaking soul to soul with your reader. Not to “young adults” but to “young souls.” Not even to children but to “baby souls”. Speak to their fundamental condition not to their particular situation. What is it they yearn for? Of you write to kids as if they are yearning for the newest skinny jeans, or the latest iPod, you are dehumanizing them and they will disdain you. Rightly so. These are not truly the things for which a human soul yearns.

D) You speak to human souls through beauty. Using words to achieve wholeness, harmony and radiance are the primary task of the writer. We have to remind ourselves over and over, with Dostoevsky, that it is Beauty that will save the world. Not cleverness. Not cuteness. Not the mere witness to God. (I am going to give a talk this afternoon on What is the Beautiful.)

E) The philosopher Etienne Gilson says that beauty is in more than just wholeness, harmony and radiance. He says there is also style, originality and universality. Style has to do with talent. Originality has to do with a new thought. Universality has to do with the fact that it speaks to thoughtful people beyond their time or culture. Don’t write a jealous character until you have something unique to say about jealousy. Or at least, a fresh way of showing us how it looks when it is asking for the salt shaker at dinner. Don’t write about the power of art. Write about the way the purple paint feels on the fingers of the three year old as she smears it with wonder across the new white carpet in the living room. Don’t write about friendship until you have something profound to say about friendship. Or at least, how it looks on Joe’s seven year old face the first time his “ Mike” best friend opts to throw the ball to Matt the fourth grader instead of Joe.

VIII. What is Mass Appeal? My sister and her husband stand at the movie theater. They look up and read the movies. “What’s playing?” “Well, there’s an indie movie about two sisters who were abused—“ What else is playing? “Fire and Ice…” “That sounds interesting.” “It’s about two guys on a cooking show who .” “What else?” “There’s that new drama , House of Love and Pain.” “What else?” “Me, Myself and Irene.” “What’s that?” It’s a comedy – about a guy with split personalities. And they are both in love with the same woman.” That’s funny. Let’s try that.

IX. Commerciality – that is the quality that makes an editor shove other editors out of the way to have lunch with you, is found in the intersection of “What Your Soul Knows” with the most pressing cries of the world of this moment.

X. What is the cry of this world? Maybe start by asking what was the cry of the world in 1968? What were the mantras of the age? What are the mantras of this age? “Whatever.” “Don’t trust anybody over 50.” “My mother is my best friend.” “The American Dream is dead.” “That is so five minutes ago.”

XII. Having said all the above about opposing narrow demographics, it seems to me to be perfectly appropriate to size up the souls who are out there, so that you can address them with intentionality. We are living in a moment of generational change. Nobody is perfectly defined by their generation. They are defined by the choices they have made. It tells me almost nothing at all about him if you say that your character, Johnny is the son of a serial killer. In the same way, it tells me nothing if you say Suzy is the daughter of a pastor. You begin to tell me something about Johnny when you note that he generally slips his snack to the poor kid in the class.

XIII. I am thinking a lot about the choices made by many people in the Boomer Generation, and from a pastoral sense, what they need to hear now so that they will cleave to God in their final years.

A) The Boomer Soul reality: Disillusioned. They say things like, “I long for unconditional love, but it doesn’t exist. Life is a cruel joke.” “I wish I hadn’t had that choice.” “Don’t fret! Life begins at 70!” Many are coming around to tremendous guilt. Many are without real bonds of family because of divorce, abortion, various kinds of disassociation and clamoring after unfetteredness. What looks like being free in your vigorous years, looks very much like loneliness in your twilight years. Still outraged. Still fighting against the man. Probably, having their stored up riches jerked out from under them. Hence, very angry at how unfair it all is.

B) What do they need to hear? “While there is life, there is hope.” There is still time to be the elders. Accept that death is coming and prepare for it with grace and generosity. Don’t try to compete with those who have youth. Be unfashionable and slower and sicker and tired. Be gray haired and a little dry. Learn to pause and sit, and stop having to be looking to be recreating the Woodstock thing every other year in your life. Realize that it isn’t all about you, but that there is a lot of joy in making life about the people.

XIV. A) The Millenial reality: Worried. Unmotivated. Resentful. Entitled. Under-educated. Lazy. Impatient. Paralyzed. They are a generation that has been bred on having easy, fast solutions. (Airplane story.)

B) What do they need to hear? Perseverance is possible. Commitment is possible. Suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to you – the loss of your humanity is much worse. The best things take time. Think abut it. At a certain point, we are all equally unlovable to each other. We are only worth it to each other because we are worth it to God. Family is something that lasts through effort. Babies haven’t changed, even as mommies continue to change.

XIV. In conclusion, I would say that as writers, we shouldn’t try so hard to be relevant as if that was something outside of ourselves, over there on a shelf. The fundmental relevance is human nature. What it longs for. What it is innately directed towards. Your Our effort should be, as JPII expressed it, to create new epiphanies of beauty that will remind your readers what it is to be truly human. And make them long for their true nature. And love it in a way which will be gratitude to the Creator.