Your Audience Can Be The Perfect Collaborator
I’m currently reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott because I want to improve my writing. I want to practise articulating my ideas with more clarity and make my writing more compelling.
In the chapter about Plot, she makes a series of points that really resonate with me and that I think can be applied by any artist or creative.
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.
If your dream is to be a starving artist or an unrecognised genius, you can do that on your own. However if your intention is to build a sustainable career as an artist, you need an audience with whom you can share your work.
Focus on getting to know the people in your audience better day by day. Direct your creativity towards making something for and with them and something interesting is bound to happen.
Some writers claim to know what the climax is early on, well before they get anywhere near it. The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn’t changed, then what is the point of your story?
Art is about change. As Amy Whitaker says, “Art is a process of creating something new in the world, that changes the world to allow itself to exist.”
Your audience is looking for art that changes them. Sometimes in a basic way like changing them to feel more happy, hopeful, included, enlightened or acknowledged.
But whatever happens, we need to feel that it was inevitable, that even though we may be amazed, it feels absolutely right, that of course things would come to this, of course they would shake down in this way.
Reading the ending of a novel is more powerful when you have the context gained from following the arc of the story that brought you to that moment. You’re as invested in the outcome as the characters in the story.
In the same way, you may find that your audience will place far more value in the outcome of your work (your novel, song, show, film, exhibition) when you invite them to share the journey of its creation with you. Rather than being presenting your work to them as a fait accompli, generously allow them to be accomplices in its creation.
In order to have this sense of inevitability, the climax of your story will probably only reveal itself to you slowly and over time.
Here comes the kicker in this lesson as far as I’m concerned. I’m often guilty of this. Early on in the creative process we risk getting attached to what we know the climax is going to be. We have a strong idea of what the finished product looks and sounds like and start railroading ourselves into making it happen.
You may think that you know what this moment contains—and it makes sense to aim for something—but I recommend that you not fix too hard on what it will be. Fix instead on who your people are and how they feel toward one another, what they say, how they smell, whom they fear. Let your human beings follow the music they hear, and let it take them where it will.
When we get too attached to an outcome, we risk putting on our creative blinkers and assuming we know all there is to know. We stop noticing and paying attention to the magic that paves our way, available to be incorporated into our work.
There is inspiration and genius available to us in our audience. We benefit from paying careful attention to who our people are, how they feel toward one another and about the world around them. It’s important to notice and hear what they say, who they love and what they fear.
We need to stay curious and open. Even as we write or perform the climax of our work our audience is showing us what to create. When we look and listen to really know our tribe we will understand how we can reflect the things that matter most to them through the lens of our work and help bring about the change we seek to make.
Then you may discover … that your characters had something in mind all along that was brighter and much more meaningful than what you wanted to impose on them.
Whether they realise it or not, your audience can be the perfect collaborator. When you create your art with the people it’s for, they’ll be engaged with it on an entirely different level than if you create it locked away in an ivory tower studio by yourself.
So aim but not too hard, and when you finally see the climax forming in front of you, then you can race toward it.
[All italicised sections are from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. You can find it on Amazon here.]