"I have tried to write poetry for people for whom there is no poetry." —Philip Levine, “The Hand of the Poet”
While I wandered my way through my favorite sections of my favorite bookstore one evening, a voice over the public-address system announced that the acclaimed Southern novelist Doris Betts was about to read from and answer questions about her new book. I confess to knowing little about her or her work. But the woman to whom I am married and her book club friends—a dozen or so of the smartest women I have ever known—rave about her. So I wandered over to the place where famous writers read in the hope that this not-nearly-as-famous writer might learn a new trick to make him better at the craft.
After Ms. Betts read from her book, she took questions from the audience. Most of the questions were about characters and plot lines from previous books, questions asked by people who had been reading her novels for years. She was such a delight to listen to.
At some point I began to lose concentration. This was probably because I was surreptitiously glancing around the store to see if any of my books happened to be visible on the shelves, hoping that maybe one or even two might be facing out—and so I did not hear the next question. But Ms. Betts’s answer came to me as clear as a bell. And a door of some sort opened for me.
Ms. Betts said that when she writes, she writes for a ‘jury’ of twelve. It was an entirely new notion for me. She went on to say that some of the same people are always in the jury. At least one of her parents is always there, because she wants to please them. Permanent seats are marked for an old friend or two as well. She fills the remainder of the seats in the jury with specific people she wants to hear this particular story—a neighbor, a teacher, another writer, a reader who wrote her a letter, a character from a previous novel. Then she writes the book to them and for them. Maybe even at them on some days, if I may bear witness from my own experience.
Some writers I know say they write for themselves alone—and if someone reads the work, they are appreciative. But they insist they are making the work for themselves. I understand what they mean. But I am another kind of writer. I do not aspire to being a tree that falls in the woods and that no one hears.
I want to write. I may even need to write. But I want to be read as well. I want to be heard.
When I begin to write a book, I ask myself some questions. Who do I think might read my writing? Who do I expect to be interested in the stories I am trying to tell? Who do I hope will discover and enjoy and be moved by them? It helps me to name their names.
On a retreat in Texas once, I heard Frederick Buechner say that he writes to people he loves and who really know him. “You use your real voice with those you love,” he said, “and you cannot be phony with those who know you well.”
Since the chance encounter with Ms. Betts and the weekend with Mr. Buechner, I have never even considered writing to an audience. An audience is somehow faceless and forbidding to me. Whenever I try to write in the direction of an audience, the work comes out flat and forced. The only real way to write, at least for me, is to write to people I know and love.
So to begin a book, I select a jury.
I take a piece of paper and, as only someone who has too much time on his hands might do, I draw a little box. I divide the box into twelve squares, and write names in the squares. No one knows better than I do how silly this sounds. (But then the whole notion of writing a book so that some person I have never met in some city I have never visited might pay twenty dollars for the right to spend hours reading it is not too far from silly itself.)
Certain names are always in my jury box. My father has been gone for more than a quarter of a century now, but I do not want to write anything that would keep him from grinning at me with the grin that always made me grin back. The same is true for my best friend, the woman to whom I happen to be married.
My editor, a dear friend for years now, always has a seat in the jury box. When the work is done, I want her to send me one of her funny little notes to tell me how wonderful my work turned out. Even when the next thing I receive from her in the mail will include two dozen pages of hard truth about what has to be done in order to make the work good enough for other folks to read.
There is no need to try to fool myself. These are the people who love Robert the writer the best, and they are the people who are most likely to catch me if I do not write honestly. They are the people who know my voice better than anyone else. And they are the ones most likely to notice when I am being lazy as I write.
Other seats in the jury go to people I want to hear—really hear—what I am trying to say in this new pile of words and sentences and stories. Some are friends of long standing. Some are people I met on retreats. Some of them have shared long conversations with me about the things we think matter at this moment in our lives.
Once I have written the names in the boxes, I paste a copy in the front of the sketchbook I use for writing this particular book. I put another copy on the wall above my writing board. I look at the jury box every day when I go to work. I keep my eyes on the jury while I work, and they keep their eyes on me.
Then I begin to write.
I write what I think of as a series of letters to people I know and people I love, people with whom I must use my real voice and people with whom I cannot be phony.
There are days when I am writing and wonder if a particular bit should stay in or come out. The jury always knows. I picture myself reading this bit or that one aloud to them, and I watch their faces to see whether or not I still have them with me. It helps me figure out a way to make the next sentence or two work a little better so they will not get lost as they read.
In the nineteenth-century, Horatio Alger Jr. gave birth to the question, “But will it play in Peoria?” When I start to write a book, who knows if it will play in Peoria or anywhere else? Writing is hard enough. Writing can be doubly hard when one tries to write to some unseen, unknown crowd of folks in Peoria or any other spot on the planet.
But I have come to believe that engaging the people who love you and with whom you cannot be phony makes it possible that an audience will see your work in Peoria or somewhere else. Please the jury, and there is a chance your work will be seen by others.
Write for those you love and who love you in return. They will be gentle with you when you show them the work, of course, because they love you. They will also be the ones who let you know if your words are honest and true. They are the ones who always grin when they see your words coming. They will tell other people, and then those people will tell other people. Which is how writers are discovered and books are sold.