Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What do you care what other people think?

with 2 comments

Immanuel Kant

We’re often told that we shouldn’t care about what other people think, but of course, we’re mindful of this all the time, and sometimes it leads to better behavior, in ways both large and small. When I’m noodling around on the ukulele, I find that my performance gets more focused when I imagine myself playing for an imaginary audience. Whenever I make an investment decision, I ask myself whether John Bogle—or, more accurately, the obsessively frugal index investors on the Bogleheads forum—would approve. More generally, when I stand back to look at my life, I often think about how it would seem to someone observing from the outside. I’m not sure who this hypothetical observer would be; perhaps, to take a page from Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar speech, it’s myself ten years from now. It’s a small thing, but I’d like to believe that it makes me slightly more civilized in my everyday actions. The existentialists believed that we should act as if what we did set the example for the rest of mankind, which only paraphrases what Kant said two centuries earlier: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

Of course, that’s an impossibly high standard to maintain, so it’s usually enough to think in terms of one person, living or dead, real or imaginary, whose approval we’d like to earn. In writing, this takes the form of an ideal reader to whom all of our work is addressed, and I suspect that nearly every writer does this, whether consciously or not. In some ways, there’s no more fundamental decision in a writer’s life than the question of what reader you’re trying to impress. It shapes the projects you tackle and the style you employ, and it even influences some of your larger life decisions, like whether you want to end up in Iowa or New York. In practice, you’ll find yourself writing with an eye to real individuals with an ability to directly influence the outcome: trusted readers, prospective agents, busy editors. Over time, though, our ideal reader starts to resemble a composite of all these people, or a version of a particular person in our lives who may never see the draft we’re working on now. Ideally, this hypothetical reader should be benevolent but also a little scary, and the standards he or she sets for us should be at least somewhat higher than the ones we’d be willing to settle for ourselves.

Zadie Smith

Sometimes, our imaginary reader is another author whose work we admire, which can set insurmountable standards of its own: if we’re constantly wondering, as the critic James Wood says somewhere, what Flaubert would think of the sentence we’re writing, most of us wouldn’t get past the first paragraph. More commonly, this voice is often the product of the author’s own life story. In my own fiction, on the largest scale, I’m trying to live up to the standard that I set for myself when I was a child, back when nothing seemed more magical than the prospect of telling stories for a living. On a more granular level, I find that I’m often writing with an eye to the first writer who ever gave me useful feedback on a story. (I won’t mention him by name, but you can read more about him here.) Back when I was starting out, he read several of my stories and covered the pages with merciless notes and corrections, and although the process was draining, I’m convinced that it allowed me to get published five years earlier than I otherwise would. One of the stories he read, “Inversus,” was my first sale to Analog, and I don’t think it would have sold at all in its unedited form—which might well have discouraged me from pursuing that audience at all.

As a result, whenever I go over a draft, I’m frequently asking myself what he would think. It forces me to be harder on myself than I otherwise would: I’ll sometimes cross out entire pages and cut others to the bone, knowing that he’d react to what was currently there with a marginal question mark or even just a simple “No.” Of course, I’m really listening to my own inner voice, which has quietly taken on the qualities of the editors and readers I’ve come to respect. It’s a voice that is rightfully skeptical of everything it sees—as both Samuel Butler and Zadie Smith have pointed out, it’s a good habit to look over your work as if it were being read by an enemy—and I don’t think it would work nearly as well if I didn’t think of it as something external to me. I turn it off as much as I can during the first draft, but crank it up during the rewrite, when there’s no danger of fear or anxiety preventing me from at least finishing a manuscript. And although I try not to read published work with that voice, since there’s no changing what is already in print, I still sometimes sense it shaking its head when I go back to revisit a story, asking me: “Is that really what you wanted to say?”

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. I too hold Zadie’s words in mind during editing. SHe also said to leave your manuscript for a year before final edits. Only then will you have the necessary distance. I don’t know how possible that would be but in theory it makes a hell of a lot of sense. Happy drafting!


    March 4, 2014 at 10:39 am

  2. Waiting a year before edits is a wonderful luxury—but it’s very hard to do unless you’re Zadie Smith.


    March 5, 2014 at 7:39 am

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