Perhaps you’ve seen the above quote, maybe everyday if you own Stephen King’s On Writing. The header of this post is a snippet of the maxim attached to that quote. In full the maxim is: “First write for yourself, and then worry about your audience.”
I agree wholeheartedly with this maxim. Why would you go the other way? You’re a writer, not a public speaker. Writers write, speakers speak, the difference being that speakers start with an audience, the writer does not. So why concern yourself over an audience you don’t have?
Do it your way: tell your story your way.
Do you know who Tommie Smith is? He was an Olympic gold medalist at the ‘68 Games in Mexico City. He made a stand to raise awareness to injustices close to him. Below is the iconic image from those Games––
Next to him on his left is John Carlos, his sprinting partner who took home bronze that night. On their respective podiums both Carlos and Smith took off their shoes to protest poverty; they wore beads and a scarf in opposition to lynching; and at that poignant moment, when the American national anthem was played, they raised their fists in the air. Furthermore, Carlos covered his uniform, the USA specifically, to reflect the shame he felt for his country.
The crowd was stunned. At first they were silent, then they started to speak up, boos and the national anthem their chant.
“It was like they were saying, ‘Oh, you anti-American sons of bitches. We’re going to shove the shit down your throat!’ ” Carlos wrote. “They screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.”
For their “crime” they were removed from the stadium, suspended from the national track team, received the standard death threats. All for making a stand against injustice.
What does this have to do with writing?
Nothing technically speaking. But as an author, as a human being, there’s something to be said here for doing it your way. Quintessentially, it’s not what you do or how you do it, it’s why you do it.
Why do you write?
Well, among other things, it’s because you have something to say, just like Tommie and John. You have a story to tell, a message to convey.
How will you tell it? By your own standards and conditions, or those of another?
What is the toughest thing for an unheard author to achieve?
To find an audience. Now you can either write for that audience, an abstract mass you don’t really know, or you can write for yourself, an audience of one who you do know.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were an audience of two. They came to their decision to protest by themselves. Yes, they were standing up for those who lacked their platform, who shared their oppression, but in that moment, it was just them and they were on an island. That audience certainly did not approve of them speaking up. Yet the pair did. They made a stand.
Similar to this, but in a context of far less social and political consequence, to be the writer you want to be, to tell the story you want to tell, you will have to take your own stand.
If these two Olympiads could take a stand on a global stage, to express themselves and their right to be heard when they knew there would be consequence, why can you not express yourself through your writing having no stage? You can find your stage, in this age anyone can so long as they put in the effort, but first comes story. Tell it how you want to tell it, how you know it must be told, not to mention why, and people will love it or hate it.
Care to find an agent and a publisher?
You can probably ignore all this then.
But if you’re self-published, or if you plan on striking up that trail, what have you got to lose?
Make a stand. Write for yourself. Now’s as good a time as any because little to no one knows you, but one day, perhaps they will.
As King wrote in his perennial guide––
“Don’t worry about making other people happy. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
In other words, don’t do they, do you.