Who do I write for?

I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing

A few months ago, someone asked a friend about whether or not I dance. I heard my friend laugh and answer, “No, she’s not a dancer.” I quietly tucked it away in my mind.

I’ve always read voraciously and I write almost just as much. I wrote in notebooks before the internet exploded. I wrote in Notepad files before I could create websites, and journaled using manually-updated HTML files before the advent of blogging.

I have watched the internet affect writing in an interesting way; who do we write for now? What do we write for? Writing is inherently a vulnerable practice. How do you measure its reach? Our society has become obsessed with “likes,” “follows,” and other metrics & analytics behind what we publish. People make attempts at creating content with the one and only goal of  “going viral.” I find myself writing less when I worry too much about its reception.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” [Evan Shipman] once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”

* * *

I moved to New York City, desperate for inspiration. At that time, I could still casually go back in time and find “holes” in my writing history — weeks, months, or even the occasional year that I went without writing. Though I still don’t consistently write prolifically, things are a little different now. New York City hungers for writing. It gulps it down, asks for seconds. I’ve developed the practice of writing daily. I write while I’m on the subway. I write while I’m walking. I write in the rain with one hand while clutching an umbrella with the other.

But it doesn’t mean that it is easy. What do I keep private? What do I make public? When do I hit “send” after writing a letter?

I don’t have a habit of writing second drafts. I rarely edit my first ones unless I find grammar mistakes. I rarely spend longer than an hour on a blog post. As a photographer, finding the moments to capture has never been the problem. It’s the work afterwards that I’ve always struggled at. I find that my favorite pieces of writing are the first drafts that feel like rivers, the ones that I write because I have no choice but to write. The ones that come out sounding right the first time, mostly because I’m writing for an audience of two.

My favorite works of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haven’t been his opuses—his epic, mammothly researched pieces in The Atlantic that investigate the roots of systemic racism. My favorite pieces have often been around 1,000 words, riddled with typos and rap lyrics, appearing on his blog from 2008 to roughly 2010.
— Zinzi Clemmons via Lit Hub

I’ve been told that I’m not a very explicit writer. I agree. But perhaps I hardly ever intend to be. I try to remember to write for myself. And almost always for one other person. Just one.

I have always danced for the same number of people. My mother tells stories about my sister and me dancing together as soon as we could walk — she says, “You have always had a knack for shaking your booty,” which sounds even cheekier in Mandarin. I have taken a hiatus from my immersion in the tango world because I felt it laden with expectation and the need to reach other people’s ideals. When I used to teach tango, I’d advise beginner dancers to dance from within. To dance for themselves, first and foremost, before they start thinking about the audience.  And to dance for the one person you are holding.

What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all.
— Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know if all of my Facebook friends know that I love to write. I don’t know if they think I am a dancer. Journalists do what they do for a larger audience, and performance dancers do, too. It has been a dream of mine to become a journalist. To be published. I want it all. As Cassie writes, “Give me one of everything: to write, and to love, and to be great.”

But I think that first we must remember that we write for ourselves. And for the ones we have loved. Not because they will necessarily read or like what we write. But, as Hemingway said, because we have no choice.

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  1. Pingback: “Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber.” | rose in midair

  2. Pingback: How I write, recently. – rose in midair

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