I dictated this into my laptop; hence the odd style….
First of all, there are no readers. That is the most important insight you could ever have about your practice of writing fiction or poetry. People are in this endeavor for themselves. Your work and my work exist only–or, let’s say, primarily–for our desk drawer. A desk drawer is not a bad reader to have, especially if you are working at a desk you are proud of and feel nostalgia about. A desk drawer is perfectly respectable. A desk drawer can never be nasty or indifferent. And no one need ever worry about a drawer giving you a like, an up-vote, and any show of respect or disrespect.
There is no shame in just writing for yourself; let’s face it, there are thousands upon thousands of writers in our country and then in the next country to the north there are thousands more and in the next country to the south there are still more thousands; and below the Panama Canal there are millions and millions of writers working in proud obscurity also mostly or primarily for their desk drawers. Never try to kid yourself that there is an audience out there for your work. I call this supply-side poetics because there is a huge supply and there is virtually no demand. There is nothing wrong with just writing for the joy and the pleasure and the satisfaction of writing. I can think of no activity that is more rewarding than writing for myself with the wisdom in mind that there are going to be no readers except my desk and similar receptacles/boxes. The writing process is joyous; the writing process is consuming. A cup of tea can be on your desk and three hours later it has not been touched. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s not like paying a bill. It’s not like haggling with anyone online. It’s not a chore. It’s not an activity that you ever have to be dragged into doing. It’s an activity that is so fulfilling that you will have to be dragged away from it. In this exciting activity you work for yourself proudly and happily and for your desk drawer proudly and happily. In this way you are free of the illusions you had when you were 15 and you thought millions and millions and millions would acknowledge you and clap and celebrate and stand up. When I was 15 or 16, I watched the movie Julia and in that movie there is a scene in which a new playwright enters a restaurant the night of the premiere of her masterwork and as soon as they see her all the people rise and clap and applaud and love her; that is the way I expected to one day be loved. And such thoughts and aspirations and dreams are common when you are 15 and 16. And they may still be common when you’re 25 and 26. And if you are unlucky, you may still have those dreams and aspirations later in life, but then you realize that that is all fantasy. And you realize, with a little maturity, that it was always, always, about the process and not the product. Once a story or a poem ,or whatever it is, has cooled down it no longer provokes the same excitement. When I have been published, I take the journal and put it on my dining room table and maybe it’s a month before I even open it up, and then I see how the publishers have done me a disservice by messing up the text in one small way or another. No, the interest has always been in the active creating and not in getting people to stand up like in the scene from the movie where so many were applauding and raving and adoring and fawning and all the other things that adolescents dream about.
In real life, it is hard to get people to do what you want them to do to rise and applaud and esteem and admire. In real life it is hard to get people to do what you would like to have them do in your fantasies. Work is published and then you realize there’s always someone smarter and cleverer and more popular—and especially a better hustler than you are. These smarter people and better hustlers might get more of an audience but then there are people above them who are still more gifted and still better hustlers and still luckier in life and perhaps they will have a small readership. Perhaps a few people will care and then a few more in the upper echelons will care.
Supply-side poetics has nothing to do with Milton Friedman or Reaganomics; quite the contrary. I use the term to emphasize that there is a saturation of supply and no demand. It’s like walking into a gay bar where everybody is predator and nobody is prey. So many people want acknowledgment but the ones who achieve happiness are the ones who can appreciate the process and de-emphasize the fantasy of many hands applauding the way they do in Julia.
To write or compose or paint or do any other kind of creative activity without regard to the audience is to be a saint. Imagine a comedian who goes on stage to a crowded club and does not tell a single funny joke or funny story and very few people laugh, or there is only a little polite scattered laughter, and there may even be some groans. But as long as he is not physically kicked off the stage, he can finish his set knowing that he has done what he was there to do. I know this is an extreme example. I know that comedy is about a give-and-take and interchange between the comedian and the audience; their laughter is what feeds his further humorousness and timing and inventiveness. But if he can get to a place of being himself and just value the moment on the stage and forget about the laughter, then he is achieving what I would call a kind of sainthood. He has gone up to the stage and he has said what he wanted to say and people have listened and it is now, in a sense, out there in the world. The comedian can rest assured that he has done what he has come to do; he is not there to feed their laughter; he is there to fulfill himself. If he can be happy with just doing that then he is, in my book, a success. And take the example of a storyteller: imagine she is telling her story (of course there are funny bits but imagine it is primarily a serious story); she is getting her words out there and no laughter is necessary for her to get her fix.
Coming to terms with—indeed celebrating—supply-side poetics comes with the same territory as acceptance of being ordinary: ordinary looks, ordinary intelligence, ordinary accomplishments. And low or no status in the way society values. But…extraordinary acceptance of the ordinary.
For the writer or painter or playwright, it’s much clearer that the act is something private and not there with spectators in mind. The first person who ever thought of an audience when he or she was writing, was the person responsible for most of the unhappiness among the artistic and the creative. Now at the age of 60 I am trying to be content with supply-side poetics. I’m trying to get to a place of peace where it doesn’t matter that I don’t have what I imagined I would have when I was a dumb 15 or 16 year old writing my first efforts. I’m still at the same desk I had when I was at that tender age. This desk has served me well through life. I love the sound of the handles as I open and close drawers because this sound reminds me of being in my mid and late teens and creating with the excitement of creating but also the fantasy of an audience out there. Now I can work with an equal amount of excitement realizing the audience has not materialized and yet the enthusiasm remains. This we can call audienceless bliss. If an artist can rise to audienceless bliss and acknowledgment of the pure magic that comes with the process of getting her work out there within the sanctuary of the study, not the meretricious, lying world of People magazine and TikTok and Twitter, then she is well on her way to achieving success in the most profound sense of the word.