The first time I encountered Peter Elbow’s theory, I scoffed. I thought that he was too “touchy feely” and focused on making students feel better about their writing. I totally dismissed his notion of writing without an audience in mind.
I believed that audience awareness was essential to good writing. In fact, Elbow doesn’t disagree. In “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience,” Elbow (1987) claims that “It’s not that writers should never think about their audience” (51). However, he quickly suggests that audiences influence our writing: “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” (ibid). In other words, taking the audience into consideration too soon in the drafting process can unduly influence our writing.
Writing is hard work and hostile audiences can paralyze even the most brilliant mind. In “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write,” Elbow (1998) recounts professors at Williams College and Oxford University who made him feel terrible about his writing. His description of his tutor at Oxford is horrifying: “Once a week, I’d knock on the oak door and come in and read my essay to him, and be instructed, and then at the end he’d say something like, ‘Why don’t you go off and read Dryden and write me something interesting.’ My first essay was on Chaucer and he was pretty condescendingly devastating. ‘What are we going to do with these Americans they send us?'” Ironically, Elbow wrote his dissertation about Chaucer, but he could have easily fallen prey to his tutor’s terrible feedback.
I guess I am sharing this because I don’t feel like a good writer. I often feel like good writing is an arcane art that I haven’t mastered. I say the incantations, but I always mess up a word or forget the chicken bone in my sack. Part of my anxiety is rooted in a fear of what “They” will think. In my mind, my audience is full of hostile old crones who will curse me for each misplaced modifier (a grammar thing I struggle with to this day). So, rather than thinking creatively, I struggle to please a fiction who can never be pleased.
Maybe we need to make writing fun again? Or, can we find the balance for which Elbow advocates? Instead of focusing on the audience, we focus on what the writer can do.