THE LAST WEEK or so I’ve been on a bit of a tear in terms of writing. And, it’s the type of writing I actually want to do. That I enjoy doing. Meaningful, memory driven writing straight from the heart. The reason for this writing spurt was in thinking of a letter my dad wrote me years ago. It was a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia and subsequently died.
One of the “helpful tips” established writers like to share with younger writers is to think of your ideal reader.
Who is your ideal reader? You won’t find the answer asking these questions:
- How old is he or she?
- Are they married? Divorced? Single?
- Young? Old?
- Do they have children?
- What’s their occupation?
- Their hobbies?
- Their musical tastes?
- What other writers and books do they like?
- And, why would this person like your writing?
What’s often described on writing blogs or within the confines of a magazine feature isn’t the best way to consider your ideal reader. More often than not, this advice is:
- Formula based, and
- Not only is it formulaic, it’s actually a composite sketch of a person that doesn’t even exist.
And, your ideal reader already exists. Make no mistake about it. So, creating a composite sketch of this individual, just as you would a character outline in a novel you’re working on, is self-defeating and often misses the mark.
Your ideal reader isn’t everyone. It’s someone. That’s a bit of a no brainer, but is worth repeating.
The point in establishing your ideal reader is simple. You can’t write for everyone. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at writing. Everyone is not going to read or like what you write. So don’t write for everyone. Write for one person.
For example, my favorite dead writer is a bit of an acquired taste. So is my favorite living writer. I love his writing. I wish he wrote more. Anything and everything he writes, I read. If I told you who my favorite living writer is, most people reading this would say, “Who?”
It’s because you probably have never heard of him because everyone doesn’t like his writing. Only some do. And, while he’s not a punk rocker, his style, to me, is very punk rock. Perhaps you know what punk rock is. Perhaps you don’t. I love punk rock. I’m in a very small minority of the human population who loves punk rock. Most people hate it or think it’s too loud, too aggressive. Some may even say it’s not really music. That punk rock musicians aren’t as talented as, say, someone who can play the blues or jazz or even traditional rock ’n roll. I’d disagree.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that whatever your craft, in this case, writing, will not be liked by everyone. Some will think you’re insightful and funny or deep and moving. A stirrer of the emotional gamut. Others may think your writing is too technical, without emotion, and plain old boring. Or, maybe it’s too commercial and they prefer a more literary style or the other way around.
Regardless, most will think your style sucks; and what writer even uses the phrase “sucks” in their writing, anyway? Not a very good one. Case closed.
If everyone liked the same thing, there wouldn’t be a hundred different ways to make coffee and everyone would bake their chicken, not grill or fry it. Think about it: there are people that exist in this world who choose vanilla over chocolate. Vanilla?!
The writer’s audience is always an audience of one
Which brings me back to the beginning: the letter from my dad. My dad never considered himself a writer, nor was he. He was a list maker, a note taker, and a jotter. Tiny scraps of paper with his handwriting littered our house. On the kitchen table. On the refrigerator. The bar-top. The end table. His dresser. In his pants pocket being washed.
Writer or not, he wrote me a letter one day. His words comforted me. I was fresh out of college and having a difficult time finding a job. I felt like a failure and I had rent coming due, student loan payments fast approaching, and no job prospects that paid enough to keep me from mounting debt. I didn’t even have enough money for groceries and started submitting freelance magazine work so I could afford to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or at least two of the three) and to pay for gas to drive out to job interviews; and even with that, I was only filling my tank up to the ¼ mark.
My girlfriend had moved from Richmond to Charlottesville so we could be closer. This was to be the beginning of our lives together and suddenly it felt like we were headed for the end. Every morning, she would wake in our apartment and get ready for work at a job she had secured. Off she went. Every morning, I wouldn’t. There I sat. It was humiliating. The definition of demoralizing.
A month after my dad sent me this letter, I found a decent paying job with a starting salary that, at the time, seemed out of my reach. In hindsight, it wasn’t a crazy salary, but it was more than twice what I had ever made in my life working construction. I felt rich; and not only could I buy groceries with my new salary, my girlfriend and I could go on a date again and eat out and I could pay for it on a credit card, which I could now pay more than the monthly minimum on.
Life was headed back on the right track. Soon, I would be able to propose to my girlfriend. No longer would I be the bum I was only a few short months ago sitting around in our apartment all day filling out job applications and getting zero phone calls in return.
Two months after starting my new job, my dad called me to tell me he wasn’t feeling right. Something in his body felt off.
A month later, he was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.
A few months later I said my goodbyes to him at Duke Medical Center where he flatlined and died right in front of me.
I revisit this letter from my dad quite frequently, especially when life feels overwhelming. It’s a little piece of him I’m forever grateful he took the time to share with me. I only wish he’d done it more. There’s so much I wish I knew that I never got to ask.
You may be wondering, “What does this have to do with an ideal reader?”
It’s simple. Yet, it’s something I’ve always struggled with answering until about two weeks ago. When you write a letter to someone, it’s just you and the recipient. When my dad wrote me the letter he sent me, I was his intended audience. Which is why I realized:
My ideal reader(s) are my two kids: Annabelle and Henry. Not my two kids at their current age. My kids when they are no longer kids. When they are roughly the age I was when my dad wrote me the letter that time: between the ages of 22-26.
When life has thrown them a curveball.
That’s who I think of now when I sit down to write When the Lights Go Out at 10:16. It’s essentially a letter to my children which says without stating outright:
This was my childhood. This was my life. These were my friends and the people and experiences that made me who I would one day become: your dad. I hope what you read here resonates with you in some way. That you come to know me a little better than you did before you began this journey. That, while life isn’t always peaches and cream, it’s the slivers of moments that ultimately make you who you are, that you’ll remember forever and sometimes even laugh yourself to tears about. It’s how you respond to life’s events, the good and the bad, that shape you. What you make of them and how you mold them between your fingers is up to you in the end.
So, if you’re like me and you’ve always struggled with defining your ideal reader, perhaps don’t think so hard on it. Don’t make a composite sketch of this person like the writing advice that litters the Internet. Don’t even think in terms of yourself or someone else you know at their current age/stage in life. Instead, consider the purpose behind a letter, a one to one interaction, which is one of the oldest forms of the written word. The answer, you may come to realize, is standing right in front of you, asking for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with their shirt on inside out.
And that person, your ideal reader, will appreciate what you write perhaps more than anyone you could ever dream up.