A few months ago we were in New York to celebrate our daughter’s graduation, and while we were there, we saw Garrison Keillor at a little bookstore in Brooklyn. Mr. Keillor (“May I call you Garrison?”) was there allegedly to do a reading of his newest book, The Keillor Reader, but he never cracked the book. Instead, he delighted us with a monologue.
Beginning with how he wanted to be a writer in his early teens, Garrison wove a tale of how his career as a writer began. He used a narrator’s device, perhaps unconsciously, saying “you” instead of “I,” which pulled us into his stories as if we were there, as if we were Garrison himself.
I was most struck by a story he told about getting a job at his college radio station, a job for which he woke up at 4:00 each morning to labor away in the studio, a job that gave him not only a stipend but the satisfaction of making a contribution to the world and honing his craft which would later make him famous as the storyteller of the people who inhabit the fictitious Lake Wobegon. The news from the college radio station was supposed to be broadcast throughout the campus, inspiring early risers and informing all who listened. Nine months after beginning his gig, he learned that through some mistake of engineering, none of the speakers throughout the campus had been properly connected. For nearly a year, he had dragged himself out of bed, worked through an early morning shift at the radio station and given his heart and soul to an audience that wasn’t there.
After the initial shock of the punchline (Four in the morning! Nearly a year! No one was listening!), I thought more about the delicate contract between the writer and the audience. I wondered, does it really matter that as Garrison met his obligations day after day, practicing the art of storytelling and refining his radio voice, no one was there to hear him? There’s something to be said for focusing on process vs. results. Granted, it’s great to have an audience. We write, speak, sing, to move people, to educate, illuminate, inspire. But is the creative act enough in itself? What if no one is out there–would we do it anyway?
Like many people, I keep a journal and with that exercise I write just for me. I no longer fancy myself as someone whose journals will be published upon her death, a literary legend whose quirky actions are explained by insights from her personal diary. In fact, I have an exit plan whereby a good friend will abscond with my diaries and burn them… there’s a lot of whining and complaining in those hand-written pages, a lot of drivel that I don’t want to be my legacy. But writing in a journal is like doing a radio show where the speakers aren’t attached to the studio. If there’s any audience at all that will appreciate my journal writings, it’s the older me, or maybe it’s just my daily letter to God.
My friend and master teacher Kevin O’Connor says, “When you’re writing a book, write it to just one person.” I think that is great advice. The act of communicating is, indeed, an act of faith. Assume someone’s listening. And even if there’s no one there, it’s good exercise for when you get a real audience. What about you… are you focused on process or results? And what have you noticed about the two?
Please comment below–I’d love to hear from you.