Write What You Dig

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In the 1997 film Boogie Nights, Becky tells Buck he needs to find “a new look” rather than the “country western” look he’s been using. Later in the kitchen, a frustrated Buck tells Maurice how Becky, his managers at the stereo store, and others have been pressuring him to change his appearance. Maurice replies, “You know what I say? Wear what you dig. That’s it. Wear what you dig.”

The current phenomenon in the publishing world is 50 Shades of Grey, originally conceived as Twilight fanfic but appealing to suburban women who have made reading erotica mainstream. When E.L. James wrote 50 Shades, she likely wrote for herself, as most fanfic writers do. That she happened to tap in to an audience is serendipitous.

Erotica readers and writers—myself included—are critical of the book but hey. Read what you dig. Write what you dig.

My current read is Crackpot by John Waters (my immediate previous read was Role Models, also by John Waters). Waters is better known as a director and screenwriter, mostly of films that specialize in purposeful bad taste, a blend of art and anarchy. Waters says, “I’ve always said that in the film world you have to pretend eight million people are gonna love it and in the art world, if eight million people love it, it’s really bad.” So he makes the films he wants to see, whether anyone else wants to see them. He writes what he digs.

Katharine Hepburn, another Hollywood icon and writer, said “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” Again, write what you dig.

So why do I keep repeating this mantra? Writers increasingly write for an audience. This audience might be regular readers of a weblog or the friends who eagerly volunteer to beta-read our latest short stories or poems. As electronic publishing lends itself so easily to self-publishing, we find it easy to put our work directly into a reader’s hands. We want to please, which is natural. But, like Anastasia Steele—the heroine of 50 Shades of Grey—are we putting the receipt of our own pleasure in someone else’s hands?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep our audience in mind when writing. Stephen King writes of his Ideal Reader in On Writing; his wife Tabitha is the only person he claims he wants to please with his work. The focus of a single Ideal Reader can sharpen our focus. When we branch out to please many readers, to appeal to everyone, our work can be spread too thin and not hold enough appeal for any one reader.

Speaking of “digging,” if you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole with your current work—uninterested in working, out of fresh ideas—it’s possible you could be subconsciously trying to appeal to a wide Ideal Audience rather than an Ideal Reader or a narrow, intimate Ideal Audience. Chances are good you won’t produce the next Hunger Games, Harry Potter series, or 50 Shades of Grey so why put the pressure on yourself? Think of what you might achieve if you wrote what you want to read. You could become a cult icon! A hipster’s “discovery!” It’s not the size of your audience that matters; it’s the passion your audience has for your work (or even you).

Beyond the mundane answers you might give to “interests” at your social media profiles, what interests you and/or your Ideal Reader? Your mind might be racing now, everything from Dancing With the Stars to “cheese in a can.” Let’s go into that closet in the back of your mind, rummage around and find out what story ideas are lurking in there.

When you flip through TV listings, what catches your eye? CSI, Castle, or Law and Order reruns? Maybe you’d like to write a crime story. How about River Monsters or Man vs. Wild? An adventure story might be what you crave. It doesn’t matter if you know anything about these topics. Just write. Enjoy yourself. If something comes of it, fill in your technical blanks later.

Maybe your neighbor insisted on shoving 50 Shades or Twilight into your hands. Give her your own fanfic, erotica, or gothic manuscript or send her the document for her e-reader. You know what she’s enthusiastic about reading so give her something worth her enthusiasm. Call it a “thank you” gift for her inspiration (and thank her in your acknowledgements, even if you never intend another living soul to see the page).

Are there things that interest you that you’d never want to admit to anyone? Those are great sources for your fiction. Because you’re fictionalizing, you have no need to explain to anyone what your inspiration was. Blame your characters. No one need know you’ve visited the Mutter Museum 257 times, that for your eighth birthday all you wanted was to visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or that you paid an extra five dollars at the county fair to see the four-headed vampire monkey. No matter what The Weird Thing is, someone likes it: you. Write about it. Then sit back and enjoy the story or poem. Someone wrote it just for you.

Writing for an audience of one or two not only frees you from the need to please but also silences your Inner Editor/Critic. It can increase your honesty and allow you to examine uncomfortable subjects more closely.

If you’re a genre writer, think outside your genre. For example, if you’re a horror writer, you might be reluctant to let people know you’re working on a fantasy series (see Stephen King’s Gunslinger series). You might worry that the reaction will be “Where’s the horror?” You might feel pressured to shoehorn the genre in there. If yours are the only eyes that see your fantasy stories, whose expectations are you meeting? Every reader will be pleased.

Does it matter if anyone else ever sees these stories? Does it matter if no one sees you walk on your treadmill while listening to Viking funeral chants? No. If you exercise, you see results. Same with writing. If you write these single-reader pleasers, it’s good exercise. It gets you in the groove. It gets you motivated. It gets you not only to write what you dig but to recognize what you dig. If you decide to submit for publication and your work is rejected, think of that John Waters quote. If everyone liked it, how boring a world we’d live in! If you have enough pieces that please only you or your Ideal Reader, collect them. If they share this common theme, that’s unifying enough for a self-released collection; maybe you’ll find that Ideal Audience by just being yourself and writing what you dig.

Final Poll Results

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