Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head

I can look around the room on the first day of a semester and get a pretty good sense of who is deeply unhappy to be in Comp I or Comp II. What I notice is how many students are not actually perceiving me in my recently laundered Ann Taylor suit but who are instead staring at a stack of teachers immediately behind me. They’re all the teachers and critics from their past.  
The quick overview of the syllabus and the fly-by past upcoming writing assignments ratchets these students’ tension levels deadline by deadline, date by date, and the voices and gestures of those teachers-behind-me get louder, more dramatic, and occasionally, I’m sure, obscene.  

For some students, no matter what I do or say, I won't actually be present the entire course. Instead, their seventh-grade English teacher who liked to give part of exam questions in Old English is in the room. Or the one who crossed out whole lines of their poems in red ink. Or the professor who told them during office hours that told them their writing gave them a headache to read.
For most of us, teachers have been our primary readers throughout our lives because we don’t share our writing with other types of people and also because most of our writing is initiated by teachers and their assignments.  They’ve become our main association with writing.

Though it’s not always teachers that people are carrying around—could be a parent, maybe one who looked over your shoulder as you wrote every high school essay, or an unhelpful friend, jealous colleague or spouse, or a disorganized boss who couldn’t clearly explain what he wanted and so sent you into a tailspin of drafts and rewrites.

When most of us write, a similar thing happens. We start writing to imaginary people.

We’re usually completely alone but yet we think that our Reader is sitting right in front of us, capable of reading our words as soon as we type them…or even of hearing our thoughts! These Readers don’t delay with giving us their feedback—doesn’t take them weeks to return a mid-term paper. No, they give us their input on-the-spot, judging our fetal thesis statement, the last four nouns we used, the length of our sentences, whether we breathe through our mouths or our nostrils, our understanding of the chapter reading, and the next ten papers we’ll write in the future. We think or scribble something down, and it’s like a factory assembly line—it travels a few inches to the right for delivery to the Reader on her stool for her immediate critique.

We don’t see what’s actually going on in our present moment.

The teacher is not your audience.  The teacher may be your eventual audience, but there’s a big difference between the two. If I am your teacher, for instance, I am not (and may I add, Thank God) perched on your university-provided dorm room desk, my legs crossed, sipping at my Starbucks iced coffee, watching you and the posters which are already slipping off the cinder block walls. The Reader in your head is also not your audience.

I don’t care how nasty this Reader was (and we’ve all had them). I don’t care if she actually sacrificed hamsters for their blood to fill her enormous red-inked fountain pens or if she rejected your manuscript from her prestigious journal by putting it through a shredder and sending it back to you in your self-addressed stamped envelope.

I also don’t care how well you know this eventual audience, this person you’re supposedly writing for. Barring an extremely rare exam-like occasion in which the recipient of your words literally watches as you write and awaits your words two seconds after they’re born, you are completely and totally alone.

Any ideas you have of your Reader’s response are 100% in your head and of your own making.

People often think they’re not very creative, but yet when they sit down to write, they make up whole scenarios and plot lines complete with dialog and action in order to talk to that imaginary Reader. Most people, no matter what they’re trying to write, no matter if it’s as hum-drum as a memo or as seemingly uncreative as a five-paragraph essay, are actually great screen play writers.

Some theorists have said that audience is evoked, invoked, or is always fictional. Mindful writing proposes that in fact audience is always at least in some part—and especially at the beginning of writing something—imaginary. Mindfulness helps us see what’s really present—and because imaginary audience isn’t really there, we are reminded of difference between speaking and writing and are able to use our solitude to our advantage.

A friend of mine told me this anecdote about a guy whose car gets stuck in a snow bank on a wintry night in Montreal. 

The guy is stuck by himself beside the road in the middle of immense cold fields with only one house in sight way off in the distance. All the lights are on in the house, so the man decides to approach the house to see if someone can give him a hand (this is before cell phones). As he’s trudging, he begins to think of the future, of what might occur in the next thirty minutes. He sees himself knocking on the door of the house. He imagines a warm vestibule, dry jackets hanging on hooks, shoes and boots in a row. But what if no one answers? What if no one’s home? What sort of fool leaves all the lights on in their house if they’re not home, he thinks and frowns a bit. He keeps trudging. He rubs his cold hands together to warm them. What if he knocks on the door and the person just closes the door in his face? Well, he is a stranger after all.  But then again, what sort of person (insert expletives) would not find out what’s wrong on a night like this? And so forth. By the time he actually arrives at the house and the door is opened, he yells, “Why don’t you take your stupid shovel then and shove it!”

How do you tell if you’ve got audience-in-the-head?  Well, it’s a safe bet that if you’re doing any writing, you’ve got audience-in-the-head syndrome. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of that endless babble or “discursive thinking” that runs through our heads all the time, unless we’re on a meditation cushion.

Writing anything actually enhances the sound of people talking because for one you probably are hearing your own voice say the words as you type them, you may even feel your tongue moving a bit in your mouth as though you are speaking.

When we write, however, we tend to anticipate our readers’ reactions and this impacts us in the moment of writing. We make different choices, letting our imaginary conversations affect—or even stop—our immediate writing.

If you’ve been hesitating to write, putting it off, suffering from a block, or even finding yourself slowing down a bit in your usual production, turn your mind toward your mind. Who have you been thinking about in the past few minutes? What sorts of bits and fragments of people (because the Reader is never a whole person but a prop, a playing-card image that we briefly sustain with our imagination) have appeared in front of your thoughts? Whose face, however abstract, has appeared on your computer screen?
Here’s an exercise I use with my students and for my own writing to help put a finger on the reader-in-the-head and start seeing these phantoms who haunt our writing.

It asks you to make a caricature like the type you see done at the mall or at fairgrounds. The point, as with any good caricature, is to exaggerate certain features and in doing so, you can’t help but notice the imaginary nature of your Reader.

Write this as a loose paragraph or freewrite. Store it someplace and it pull it out when you find yourself hesitating as you write. You might want to also to do a separate caricature for different occasions of writing.

1.       Think of an occasion recently where you had to write something.

2.      You start to visualize someone having a judgment or opinion about this piece of writing you’re about to start.

3.      This person appears in your room.

4.      What does his or her face look like? Make their head very large, like a caricature.  Then describe their body as very tiny.  Make their clothing absurd—maybe too small.
5.      Exaggerate some ugly feature on their face.

6.      The person starts to say something to you about your writing.  What’s the first sentence the person says?

7.      The person has an ulterior motive for what he or she is saying.  What is it?

8.      Something strange happens to the next sentence the person says.  Distort some part of it.  Make it ludicrous, unreasonable.  What is it?

9.      The person gets frustrated.  What do he or she do next?

10.  Let another sentence come from the person’s mouth.  Have it also go out of his or her control.

11.  Add a few details about the person’s facial expressions as he or she loses more and more control over the situation.

12.  Put this person in some sort of container.1 What sort?  Describe.

13.  Something ugly or icky is also at the bottom of the container: what is it?

14.  Now what are you going to do with the container?

1  Litter boxes, old beer bottles and Tupperware with spoiled blue cheese are particularly good ones but I’ve also heard of people using medical boxes full of syringes and shipping crates headed to Singapore. Ann Lamott also recommends visualizing these inner critics as mice, putting each mouse in a jar, and turning down a volume-control button on the jar.


  1. Dr.Peary,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and I will use some of your suggestions tomorrow when I try to find an ending for a piece I am writing. You would think that writing an ending for a non-fiction piece would be easy since you are telling what really happened, but in fact I always seem to struggle with where exactly the story should stop. I think after reading your blog that it may be related to not writing in the moment and being present, but instead thinking so much about where I should be going next that I don't even recognize when I have come to the end of my own story. You have helped me see it in a different light. I also love your poem. That is one area of writing I have never ventured into, but I like the idea of trying different kinds of writing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this blog and I will be a faithful reader. Shirley

  2. Hello Shirley--
    I never thought of using the device on a specific phase of a piece of writing (i.e.: figuring out the ending). It's so true that people can get blocks at different moments in the writing process. Thanks very much for contributing this perspective. It's great to hear from a fellow writer.