Caroline Shannon Karasik reckons with various craft advice, including “write for no one,” when she’s always hoped to one day share her book with her grandmother.
had I want to do this
My grandma. My grandma.
In college classes, writing workshops, mentor meetings, the message had been clear: Write for no one but yourself. There’s an entire Reddit forum dedicated to the topic. And yet, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t write with a vision of her holding my book affixed to the end result.
Sure, I had also been crafting my book for the “right” reasons, focusing on the art, getting the story on the page for the sake of writing. I wrote page after page about my obsessions, the things that “haunted” me, as Natalie Goldberg says in her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, always keeping in mind that I wasn’t writing to achieve a certain feeling from my eventual readers. It was, I knew, especially important for two reasons, the first being that writing with a specific person (or people) in mind can often trip the writer up. Writing already brings with it a certain amount of pressure, so why let the idea of your mom or BFF influence your work?
Many authors have also noted that writing for a specific person is an impossible task, namely because the readers’ experience of our essays or novels is out of our hands. Author Mitali Perkins told me, during a recent conversation, “What my reader takes out of it—that’s not up to me.”
This is not to say, of course, that the writer does not write with a target audience in mind. In fact, knowing your demographic is key to the process of eventually publishing your book. But at its inception, writers are meant to write as a means to learn and think. Some writers write as a form of activism. And in order to preserve the art, we are told to create with our intentions or needs at the forefront of our minds. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon give this advice to his younger self, noting: “Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”
These are the rules, right? Write what you know. Show don’t tell. These rules were designed to usher the writer toward the task of creation as opposed to the burden of shouldering what the words will become, who they will become for.
And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. As I thumb through my manuscript, I consider the writers who have shown us otherwise. R. O. Kwon, author of the blazingly gorgeous The Incendiaries, recently made a solid case against killing your darlings for Catapult. (“I want any novel I write to be full of darlings,” she writes. “If possible, all darlings.”) Others have encouraged us: Show don’t tell, yes, but also, don’t forget to tell, tell, tell. Could there be room to write for no one while also writing for the one, perhaps, who mattered most?
“For God’s sake, it’s not written in stone, Caroline,” my grandmother would say. She wouldn’t be incorrect. This advice is, after all, merely intended to keep the writer out of her head. In his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King suggests there is room for both. His long list of tips includes “First write for yourself and then worry about the audience,” which can be interpreted as, yes, the audience matters, but write with the intention of pleasing your creativity first. King has also said he writes while picturing his wife, Tabitha King, who is also an author, reading his pages.
Writing advice is merely that—a recommendation, a suggestion, an opinion. It is helpful when it takes the writer from A to B. Otherwise, advice can thwart or limit the process. “Nonsense,” I hear my grandma scoff.
As I dig into the next round of book edits, I will be, as Toni Morrison has said, writing what I want to read: about motherhood, mental health, women’s pain, and identity. And not unlike King, I will envision my grandmother’s hands on the pages, dog-earing her favorite parts. She will be the undercurrent to my fingers on the keyboard. But when my book eventually makes its way into the world, I will be adhering to another piece of writing advice—I won’t poke around the comments sections. I most certainly won’t read Goodreads reviews. Not only because I yearn to protect my process and understand my book won’t be the perfect match for every reader, but because I won’t be able to find the most important one of all.
Caroline Shannon Karasik’s work has appeared in The Cut, Tonic, Narratively, and other publications. She is currently an instructor at Catapult and an MFA candidate in Antioch University’s creative writing program. Caroline lives in Pittsburgh. You can find her on Instagram @carolineshannonkarasik and Twitter @CSKarasik. Her website is www.cskarasik.com.