Writing with the Reader as Co-Creator
The audience should be addressed as early as possible within the writing process. In the writing theory discourse, and particularly within the discourse of teaching writing theory, this has become a dwindling perspective. Articles on writer’s block, the writing process, troubleshooting, and how to approach problems in student composition all include at least a brief discussion of audience. The writers address how audience should be addressed, what type of language and tone to use, if audience should be addressed, and so on. It’s not that no one talks about audience, it’s that the goal is to empower the writer and to find strategies to encourage and provide solutions for the struggling writer. In the process, however, it minimizes and strips power from the reader. Why? Because audience is often the source of fear, discomfort, and writer’s block, especially for student writers. Throughout their education, the audience for students has been represented by teachers, parents, and occasionally fellow students. Teachers in primary and secondary education habitually teach heuristics as algorithms, and are harsh in their critiques. Students often cannot differentiate “criticism” from “constructive criticism” when providing or reading comments to and from their peers.
Students are encouraged to grab their audience, to sell their writing, because the audience is heavily influential. While the writer’s goal is to persuade the reader, but in addition, the audience can have an equally persuasive role in writing (Elbow 50). Additionally, the Western tradition of rhetoric has been stereotyped as classically persuasive and argumentative. As such, it is viewed as a heavy reader-based prose tradition: written with the audience in mind (because the audience must be persuaded and an argument must be made). The audience must be persuaded, and thus the audience persuades the writing in order to be persuaded by the writer’s argument.
Because of this persuasive role, the audience is then (sometimes) portrayed as a tyrant that the writer must liberate him or herself from in order to be a successful writer (or at the very least, overcome road blocks in writing). Cheryl Armstrong notes that “during the process of composing [prose written for an audience], writers may not disregard their audience as much as be tyrannized by it” (Armstrong 86). Peter Elbow describes audience as “a field of force” (Elbow 51) and makes an argument for ignoring audience, which “involves learning to free oneself (to some extent anyway) from the enormous power exerted by society and others, to unhook oneself from external prompts and social stimuli” (60). While this can help young writers learn to moderate the influence audience has over him or her and his or her writing, it also runs the risk of degrading the audience. Arguments such as these can turn the reader into a submissive recipient of the writing. We lose the agency of the reader, and the idea that maybe the reader is capable of doing more than receiving information and being persuaded to agree with the writer.
Peter Elbow also advises teachers to stop being critics and to become readers. While I don’t think the critic should be disregarded as a reader–”Criticism is a metaphor for the act of reading” (DeMaria 107)–Elbow means the teacher should be a different kind of reader, the inviting reader versus the inhibiting reader. I agree with him that the inviting reader is a helpful tool, and one that should be implemented more often.
The inviting audience is “like talking to the perfect listener: we feel smart and come up with the ideas we didn’t know we had” (Elbow 51). More importantly, however, is that the inviting reader can have an active role within the exchange between writer and reader. By doing so, the writer is not relinquishing all power back to the reader, or giving in to the tyranny, but merely developing a partnership. The reader can be the writer’s partner in the writing process if there is a mutual trust and cooperation, if the writer lets the reader become a part of the meaning-making process. However, there are some that would say “to tolerate ‘an array of different actual meanings’ is to ‘deny that the text means anything in particular’ (VII, p.45)” (Beaugrande 543). In response to this idea, I sent out the following haiku:
unable to lift my head
from the pillow
I asked a group of people, varying in age, sex, nationality and familiarity with haiku as a genre to respond.
“First thought: I think of a cold morning, the bed so cozy-warm it seems impossible to leave it. Second thought: I think of a young person who has just now died. Her family surrounds her but she can’t talk to them, can’t open her eyes or lift her head from the pillow–her bed pillow or, perhaps, her coffin’s pillow. The ‘early frost’ of an early death.” (Lanoue)
“The haiku brings a really clear mental image of waking up every day in the winter for school. My bedroom window was always iced up, so my brain makes a whole scenario of my mum yelling at me to get up when it’s about 3 degrees in the room.” (Bellis)
“It reminds me a lot of how I am in the morning, if I am woken up prematurely.” (Durm)
“This haiku captures something that everyone has experienced: the numbness of the early winter. The desire to stay in bed and the reluctance to face the day.” (Cecon)
Given the text (or lack thereof), nothing implies that any of these readings or interpretations of the poem are wrong. The poem’s significance could be in the feeling one has during the first cold days of the approaching winter, or it could be a symbol of death. But what if I said that the author of the haiku had fibromyalgia and Ehlers-Danlos, and that both syndromes include chronic fatigue and chronic pain. On some days, especially cold days, the author has difficulty getting out of bed because of it. Days such as those make the author feel as though he or she has grown old before her time. The aching joints and lack of energy feel as though an early frost as settled in for him or her.
Does this information mean that the other readings are wrong? Is there anything within the poem to indicate that the readers’ interpretations are wrong, or that the author’s understanding of the poem is “more right?”
No. And I as the author would be offended if that were the case.
It’s not simply a matter of interpretation, but it’s writing with interpretation in mind. The reader takes on multiple forms, those who do nothing but read (the fictional reader), the critic, the editor… and the writer. Reading and writing are a duality. To write well, you have to be able to read well. And at some point, every writer is a reader. We read to learn to write, and by minimizing the reader, we can forget that duality. We don’t talk about writers as readers, and we often don’t consider the possibilities of reader as co-creator when discussing composition and writing theory.