Forgive me, Gentle Reader. For the moment I simply can’t fulminate about politics or current events. I’m out of bile. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing for you today.
I’ve often found myself stalled in the middle of some novel-length project. In the most dramatic case, the “stall” lasted for twelve years. My difficulty wasn’t “writer’s block,” whatever that phrase might mean. Indeed, I doubt there’s a conventional term for it, possibly because the real problem is a bit embarrassing to the writer it afflicts.
The writer who isn’t just straining to get something out so he can pay the bills has important decisions to make throughout his undertaking. Why did this happen? How should Smith have reacted, and why didn’t he? What should come next? Are we in the right place for those plot events? And so forth. The willingness to confront those questions is what makes it possible to go forward. The inverse is equally true.
It’s not a simple or pain-free process. Much of it involves a far deeper set of questions, pertaining to the writer’s own motivations. Most especially, Why the hell am I doing this? What could I possibly get out of it?
The writer who can’t answer that question satisfactorily is in for a rough ride.
I know a man who set out to write a novel for financial reasons. That’s right: he needed money, and he felt that he could increase his income by producing a novel. It turned out to be a terrific piece of work, the best thriller I’ve ever read. However, it did nothing for his bank balance. Does it surprise you to learn that he hasn’t written anything since then?
Some writers set out to “send a message.” “Message fiction” is sadly common today. It’s seldom very good; preachments don’t often make for good entertainment. Exceptions are few. As Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
It might sound tautological, but even so the point escapes many. The first purpose of entertainment must be entertainment. If that isn’t the writer’s principal aim, he’s likely to misfire. Moreover, the principle also holds true in the other arts. Music, painting, sculpture, dramatic productions, what-have-you must please their audiences, or they have failed. It’s vital – and perhaps this, too, is a tautology – that the artist actively wants to please his audience.
But why does anyone ever want to do that?
The entertainer is a subspecies of Mankind. Not everyone has the inclination…or the knack. Moreover, it’s unclear to what extent those things are innate and to what extent they can be acquired or inculcated. Nature versus nurture yet again!
We can comment on the observable characteristics of the entertainer:
- He tends to be outgoing;
- He gravitates toward an audience;
- He responds to an audience by producing entertainment;
- He has a sense for what his audience wants to see / hear / smell / taste / touch;
- When he succeeds in entertaining his audience, it pleases him as much as it did them.
These characteristics make it unlikely that you’ll ever meet an entertainer who’s also a misanthrope. (Actually, how often are you likely to meet any sort of misanthrope? But I digress.)
The greats of the radio era were natural entertainers. They didn’t need to see their audiences before them. They knew Americans were listening, and they poured forth their best. Jean Shepherd is probably the icon of the radio entertainer.
Successful politicians must be entertainers, at least in this respect: they must know what their audiences want to see and hear, and give it to them. Donald Trump has proved himself to be a consummate entertainer, quite apart from his other gifts. (And if you needed a clinching argument against Joe Biden, you have it now.)
According to Dale Carnegie, the great stage magician Howard Thurston would prepare for a performance by saying to himself, “I love my audience:”
Thurston had a genuine interest in people. He told me that many magicians would look at the audience and say to themselves, “Well, there is a bunch of suckers out there, a bunch of hicks; I’ll fool them all right.” But Thurston’s method was totally different. He told me that every time he went on stage he said to himself: “I am grateful because these people come to see me, They make it possible for me to make my living in a very agreeable way. I’m going to give them the very best I possibly can.”
He declared he never stepped in front of the footlights without first saying to himself over and over: “I love my audience. I love my audience.” Ridiculous? Absurd? You are privileged to think anything you like. I am merely passing it on to you without comment as a recipe used by one of the most famous magicians of all time.
Perhaps it’s all simpler than one might think.
Some who possess great gifts of eloquence and insight cannot entertain. They’re too full of themselves to do as Howard Thurston did. He who considers himself superior to his audience, deigning to dispense lessons to them from the fount of his wisdom, is unlikely to please anyone. That’s part of why “message fiction” is seldom widely liked or memorable.
Interestingly, a certain kind of writer disparaged by some of his colleagues – the “hack” – is likely to have a superior grasp on his trade. He’s there to make money by writing fiction. How does he do that? He gives his audience what it wants. He might not think much of his readers. (Consider the numerous errors in his published stuff.) But he knows what they’re there for, and he shovels it out in bin lots. He probably out-earns a lot of writers who are his betters in matters of technique. In this connection, there’s an exceedingly enlightening – and entertaining – story by W. Somerset Maugham: “The Creative Impulse.” Perhaps I’ll type it out and post it later. (Never fear; it’s in the public domain.)
As I’ve said before, I write these pieces as a kind of dialogue with myself: a way to probe some quandary that’s been on my mind for a time. They’re not intended to compete with the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes the technique gets me where I want to go. However, I don’t post them for that reason, but because I have a sense that what troubles or fascinates me is likely to be of interest to others as well.
So! What about you, Gentle Reader? Do you gravitate toward an audience? Do you seek to please your readers / listeners / viewers? Does it gratify you when you succeed in doing so?
Are you an entertainer?
If so, why sit you there idle? Get to work! 😉