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What Audience Do You Imagine When You’re Writing?

Posted on Feb 20, 2007 by

Peter Elbow, in his book, Writing With Power, makes a distinction between safe audiences and dangerous audiences. He proposes that we write more authentically when we’re writing for audiences that feel safe.
He writes [p. 186]:

First, a dangerous audience can inhibit not only the quantity of your words but also their quality. That is, if you are trying to talk to a dangerous audience, instead of finding yourself mixed up or tongue-tied or unable to think of anything to say [which, of course, can happen], you may find yourself chattering away nervously, unable to stop but also unable to say anything important. If, for example, I have to speak to a person or group that I find difficult, I might adopt a voice that hides my real voice and speak with, say, a tinny jolliness or an inauthentic pompousness. If, by contrast, I am with someone I trust, I may say less than usual but talk from my depths—

I may say less than usual but talk from my depths.
Maybe that’s how we begin to suspect we’re in the presence of a safe audience—when we find ourselves speaking from some depth. Maybe we only recognize a safe audience after the fact—when we realize what kind of writing or speech has become possible in its presence.

Elbow also makes a distinction between an actual audience—a person or group we know will actually be reading what we write—and the imagined audience—that audience that we carry around inside our heads, the one we tend to assemble from all our past experiences of speaking and writing.

Say it happens one morning—or perhaps it’s evening—say that we find ourselves writing something true—something that feels authentic. Say we write something that we didn’t even know that we knew, but then, after we write it, the words feel like they have this ring of truth. What has allowed those particular words to emerge? What does the audience for those words have to do with it? How much of it has to do with the outer audience? How much of it has to do with the inner audience?

More questions here than answers—–

What audience do you imagine when you’re writing?

Does the inner assembled audience change with time?
And what kinds of things cause it to change?
And does this inner assembled audience have anything to do with healing?