Why do I understand where Elbow is coming from? Easy. Because what you see below these lines will drive me to do everything but write. I will clean my house. I will walk my brother’s dog. I will catch up with friends that moved away long ago. I will rearrange my furniture. Anything but write. And in reality, it’s not the blank page that’s driving me to do so. It’s the people that will see this page in all of it’s printed glory (or horror) when it’s all said and done.
Peter Elbow begins “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience” by outlining the ways in which considering audience from the very beginning of the writing process can, in fact, inhibit audience. Essentially, Elbow outlined the way I’ve approached creative writing so far this semester. Given an exercise in class, knowing that I will not have to read what comes out, I can write pages and pages. Sitting in front of the computer, determined to get to work on my story idea, the blank page reminds me that this is a graduate writing class, that there are people (besides the professor) who have been published, that some of them are second years, and some of them are Ph. D. students. My resolve to write crumbles because it does make me nervous for them to read my work. Elbow has a point.
As a teacher of freshman composition, I think we will have to face this hurdle. Students think they have nothing to write about or are so concerned about mechanics that every sentence they produce is subsequently deleted because it’s not perfect. Elbow outlines what I think is a useful approach to thinking about audience:
It’s not that writers should never think about their audience. It’s a question of when. An audience is a field of force. The closer we come—the more we think about these readers—the stronger the pull they exert on the contents of our minds. The practical question, then, is always whether a particular audience function as a helpful field of force or one that confuses or inhibits us. (336)
Ignoring audience, for a time, can lead to better writing. Uninhibited writing is, as Elbow says, often the strongest. While I have no doubt that some students will find audience helpful, I find Elbow intriguing because a writer is not at fault for not appreciating the ominous presence of a vague audience. He even says, “What most readers value in really excellent writing is not prose that is right for readers but prose that is right for thinking, right for language or right for the subject being written about” (339). We want our students to be thoughtful writers first.
The challenge becomes, then, to figure out when and how an audience fits into the teaching of composition. It would be unfair to begin with audience does not matter and then later say that it does. It would also be unfair to ask them to create an audience, because that makes “audience” vast and vague, which is not useful. The best advice I received in undergrad was to “make [my paper] relevant.” I was not asked to think about the teacher, or the masses that will not ever actually read my paper. I was asked to make a point. In a way, it made the world my audience, but at the same time, it removed the personal element of audience for me. I was writing about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My paper focused on the antithetical rivers. In the conference, my professor read my draft, set it down, turned toward me with folded hands and said “so what?” So what? I thought. So what! I made a pretty awesome connection is what! In thinking about it later though, I did find a “so what” that challenged the reader to consider why this little book that is one hundred years old can still be useful. The impersonal audience approach worked for me, and I think that is what Elbow is getting at, but like I said, the challenge is how. How do we find the balance of audience relevancy in the classroom?