I heard Nicole's talk a few years ago at AWP. Halfway through, I was thinking about how little we really know about who our audiences are. And as Nicole says, knowing who our audience is can be a tricky business--something that all writers and writing teachers have to think about. Those that read this blog then, stand to learn something useful from Nicole's wisdom and insights on this somewhat thorny matter.
Who Reads Us? by Nicole Walker
When I first started teaching composition, we had been given some training that told us to remind the students of audience. When I went to college, writing lessons were more trial by fire—the Humanities capital H would make you write four good papers a semester. “Org” which stood, I think for organization and “awk” which stood for awkward were the primary pedagogical notes. But in university land, I was supposed to explain how to make essays less awkward and more organized. I was supposed to drill into students the importance of an audience. In some ways, this was easier in business writing than in composition. In business writing, there were imaginary customers—people who might be interested in the student’s resume or in brochures about wastewater. In composition, as in Humanities, the teacher was the primary audience and what did anyone know about the teacher? Did they like to read papers about marijuana legalization? Did they smoke marijuana? Had they read forty-seven hundred papers about the legalization of marijuana and, even if they had been for it once, the quality of the affirmative papers made them change their positions? In Humanities classes at Reed, philosophy profs, lit profs, history profs, even science profs held sections of small classes. If I was writing a paper about the Iliad for my conference leader, a psych prof, should I bring in Freud or Jung?
The audience idea was tricky too even when I began writing essays in MFA school. Am I writing to an editor of a literary magazine? To my professors? I think, at least at first, I was writing to my MFA colleagues, which is pretty much how MFA written lit gets read and published. We like each other and thus we read each other and the lit mags are read by grad students and published by grad students and that, for the most part, seems to be a good, socialist economy. I like to write for that hyper-literary crowd. When I allude to Kathy Acker, I’m so happy that someone in the world knows what I’m talking about.
But in 2005, I started a blog and, it was sort of geared to the same people—my friends in Salt Lake with whom I’d gone to grad school. Some of them had started a blog. We were essentially blogging to each other. But then, I moved away from Salt Lake and away from my mom and sisters. The blog turned to a different audience that included some non-grad school bloggers and my mom and sisters. Maybe my husband’s mom too. I updated about the job and the job market but also my daughter and the newness of Michigan. Moving was a good way to jar me out of my regular expectations for audience. Orienting my reader, be it my sister or my friend Lynn, to Michigan required good skill at paying attention to small details—the way the birds were different and snow removal was different and the way it stayed light until almost 11:00 p.m. at solstice because of how far north we were and the fact we were at the western edge of the eastern time zone. The weird left turns called “Michigan lefts" that were mainly Utah U-turns.
I tried to adapt a blog post for an essay and found that it didn’t work very well. The blog was more conversational. It didn’t have that extra layer of significance that one gets from an essay published in Triquarterly or Black Warrior Review. It was a time thing, primarily. I imagined people on the internet read fast. They don’t need the underlying significance of Michiganian climate systems and how that relates to deprivation. No. Blog readers seemed to want to know if my daughter Zoe was still eating onions and if the snow would ever melt. I could answer them fast and maybe put up a picture of Zoe eating an onion and the five feet of snow in the front of the house.
“A leisurely amount of time” is a hallmark of literary magazines and click speed click is the hallmark for the internet which is how my friend Rebecca Campbell and I decided to put the 7 Rings project for the Huffington Post. This project was built for speed.
On the first day, someone posted/sent us an image. Then we sent that image to a writer. The writer responded and the very next day, we posted that response. Then, rinse repeat with the writer’s work being sent to a painter. We kept it up for almost fifty days and although we were worn out, Rebecca and I found new audiences in both our painter friends, our writer friends, and our Huffington Post friends. That was in 2010 and we’re still building on that project. Jenny Colville began Prompt Press right after we finished. Kimberly Brooks wants to help us publish the Rings in book borm. Michael Steinberg emailed me the other day to remind me how much fun he thought the rings were. Maybe wide but shallow is the hallmark of the world wide web.
This was a friendly place, connecting more of us, with great speed. Or so I thought until March 7, 2015 when the Arizona governor cut funding to higher ed by 90 million dollars. The cut to my small university was 17 million alone. I started writing letters on my blog—the same blog with the baby who ate onions and the Michigan snow. I wrote a letter a day. I wrote about onions. I wrote about garbage. I wrote about snow all as a way to take whatever angle I could to see if I could penetrate the fortress of hands-over-ears politicians who believe that less education is better for the world. I could make whatever metaphors I wanted. No one was reading. Or, so I thought until the Capital Times came up from Phoenix to interview me about the letters, shocked and surprised I’d written 52 letters with no response from the governor. By the time I’d written 60 letters, the local weekly had picked up the blog as a column and even though the essays are drenched in metaphor and maybe even a Kathy Acker allusion or two, the people who are reading these are primarily not my MFA grad friends although a couple of them do read them which is good because they are my audience and so is the weekly reader and so one day, I hope, is the governor who reads the letter about pennies and thinks, you know, I think we could spare an extra penny on the dollar to get people to go to the university and to write essays for composition and for business writing so they can keep writing until they get to AWP and into the Huffington post and into Flag Live so they can see who their audience is and thank them.
NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction