I was searching for a way to make the impact of those invisible audiences-in-our-head tangible to first-year writing students, and the other day I found a strategy that I think might have worked.
The important notions that audience is a matter of proximity and that most audience is made-up can easily be lost on students. Too abstract. Students can have a hard time perceiving the fundamental and blessed vacancy of the present moment for the purposes of writing. They need tangible proof of the impact of those imaginary creatures, those self-generated conversations that can slow down writing or cause anxiety. They need that proof in order to start taking steps to avail themselves of the vacant openness of the present (steps like opting to freewrite, switch audience-in-the-head, do messy drafts).
So I asked my students to do 3 separate freewrites in class over the space of 30 minutes.
First Freewrite: This one was written to a prompt I put on the board. Students were told to freewrite for 5 minutes and that the freewrite would be partially shared: they would be asked to paraphrase an idea or sentence and say it to us afterwards.
Second Freewrite: This time, students were told that we would write to the same prompt but that after 5 minutes, I would randomly select 2-3 students to read aloud their entire freewrite to the group. So this freewrite fell into the category of shared and focused (given a topic).
Third Freewrite: This time, I told students they would start their homework in class (I showed them the exercise assignment sheet) in a disposable freewrite. They wouldn't be able to keep the screen or sheet of paper from their freewrite. After 5 minutes, everyone would be required to crumble the freewrite into either a virtual or 3-d recycling bin.
What Happened: While I freewrote with the students, I also noticed what was going on with them in terms of their posture, body language, and affect. During the Second Freewrite, a call & response of sighs went around the classroom--though the students didn't seem aware that they were sighing. I also noticed with my own disposable freewrite that I leaned much closer to my notebook, that my handwriting became bigger, that I drove the pen down onto the paper with greater emphasis.
When we discussed the experience of the 3 freewrites as a group (I didn't in fact make anyone paraphrase or involuntarily share), students noted differences in the quantity and quality of the content of the freewrites.
They talked about how the Second Freewrite elicited far fewer words: they had tangible proof on the page or screen that an imaginary audience had slowed down their writing. They spoke of being more cautious, of plotting out matters of word choice and organization, of editing while composing.
Students found the highest number of new ideas in the Third Freewrite and said that those ideas were not just more numerous but also of greater interest to them. I felt the same way: the best ideas I'd had all day were definitely lying around on my sheet of paper. Some resented having to dispose of this freewrite (I said they didn't have to).
The Third Freewrite seemed to suggest that ideal circumstances for invention call for this sort of privacy: a low-stakes task environment in which even the self isn't an audience for its writing. That writing is disposable, fleeting, part of the moment. Because the student wouldn't be keeping a copy of the disposable freewrite, even the student's self wasn't a (long-term) audience for the text.
We always have the opportunity to step into a circle of privacy with our writing. It's a privacy in which we kick out considerations of what others may think in the future, kick out any consequence to our words, any judgement. An activity like these three freewrites helps show how often our imaginary, evoked audiences interfere with the possibilities of an open and vacant present moment for writing.
If you find yourself stuck or slowing down on a writing task, consider doing these Three Freewrites. Freewrite about your project knowing you'll paraphrase a passage to a friend or on Facebook or Twitter. Then freewrite thinking you'll be showing the entirety to a reader. Then do a disposable freewrite. See if you don't summon your audience ghosts--and see if you don't send them off to give yourself a break.