… and why we forget this
Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a writer is a result of living right here and now.
We are constantly stimulated. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, distracts us. We check our favorite application (for me, the current fave is Instagram), searching for a nugget of wisdom or sniffing for a whiff of the new. We hunt for what is outside when, to write well, you have to go within,
Two conditions prompt great writing. The first is being free from distraction. Every writer has a “spot”. Novelist John Irving has a cabin near his house. In a Los Angeles Times article, comedy writer Rob Long admits booking himself a three-week trip on a cargo ship to finish a writing project. You don’t have to go that far, but you do need a spot.
The second is connecting to the topic. Connecting requires a writer to find the spark within, to find a purpose. It can scary and frustrating and lead to dead ends. Yet it must be done.
Every time you write you start with nothing. Often you start with an empty notepad or a voice note that’s yet-to-be. If there’s a screen in front of you, it’s blank. The cursor is blinking. Maybe you imagine it’s laughing at you. This can seem daunting. In reality, it’s liberating.
The nothingness gets at a beautiful truth: Your connection with your reader starts with you. It’s for you to know why you are writing and who you are writing for. In short, you have to know your purpose and your audience. These are the two flames that fire any piece of writing.
Before deciding on what form your words will take (a narrative or poem or joke, a play for the stage or screen, a research paper or report), get at the why. Your name is on it, right? Even if it’s some sort of assignment for someone else, the words and ideas are yours. Back, then, to the essentials. Why are you putting these words together? How do you want to connect with the person on the other end? To laugh? To understand? To persuade? To move to action? To go on a voyage?
Your goal with your connection is simple: to get a reaction. The reader may like it. They may not. But they need to get a sense of you – and the emotion under the words. One good test of your writing is to ask yourself: will there be an emotional reaction to this?
The second flame works with first. Think of your audience. What are their sensibilities? What do they need explained? And what will they already know? For a moment, consider a phone call. On the phone you have to talk in clear language the other person will understand. In writing this clarity has more importance because, as opposed to the phone, a reader can’t ask questions – at least, not to you. The words have to contain everything you, as a writer, need in order to connect.
Let’s take a look at a case study that answers these two questions: for whom and why.
In 2004 Dave Chappelle was 31 years old . . . and riding high.
The sketch comedy show bearing his name was taking off. It afforded Chappelle the kind of fame he had been chasing since first sneaking in a club to do stand-up comedy at age 14. His new special was being filmed at a legendary venue, The Filmore in San Francisco. The place where Chappelle’s comic idols Richard Pryor and George Carlin had once roamed the stage was now his.
Yet he still knew the value of connection.
The savvy San Francisco audience knew comedy. Many in the audience would travel from Oakland, the city across the Bay. At that time Oakland was everything San Francisco was not. If San Francisco was open & welcoming, Oakland was guarded and gruff, even threatening in places. These separate audiences would be to whom Chappelle had to connect.
The purpose of the words, of course, was to get laughs. The special, “For What It’s Worth”, is one of the best comedy specials of this century. Early on Chappelle earns perhaps his biggest laugh by playing off the differences in attitude between the people of these two cities:
When you leave San Francisco to go over the Bridge it’s like
‘Bye bye bye. Come back in April for our sale on Birkenstocks.’
Then you get across the Bay and it’s like ‘Welcome to Oakland, bitch’.
Chappelle then follows up by miming, looking from side to side and then locking the car doors. In just a few words and two simple gestures (that both audiences would understand), he makes light of the situation. He connects.
By knowing your audience on the outside and your purpose within, your path as a writer starts to clear. Find your spot inside and find your spot outside. And your audience will respond.
LEARN: You know what you need to know.
USE: Go through a piece of your own writing that you feel is good . . . but a bit unfocused. Re-read it. Afterward, in a single sentence, write down what you aim to do (your purpose) and who you are writing it for (your audience).
That’s your guide. Now, re-write it.