READERS WANTED: Reflections on Finding an Audience

“Does it matter if you have a large readership?  Do you want more hits? If you do, then why?  The answer to that question is very important.”

My friend Jenny always asks good questions.

To have a moment of theatre, you need two things.  An actor and an audience. Does it need to be a big audience?  No.  Can an audience of one be life-sustaining?  Depends on what you mean.  Should an audience of one be enough?   The “audience of One” usually refers to God, but in this case I mean the word “one” to stand-in for the word “small.”  Are small audiences enough to be life-sustaining over time?  Again, depends on what you mean.

Once, near midnight, I played a very physical, 90 minute solo musical to an audience of seven.   Another time, I played my solo show based on Leaving Ruin in a living room that held less than a dozen teenagers, none of whom were too interested at the beginning. (It’s the wrong kind of show for an exclusively teen audience.)  I’ve played many rooms that were less than a quarter full.

I’ve also played to full houses running in the thousands.

Theatres want audiences, songwriters want venues and fans, writers want readers.  Why?  Beyond the well-known idea that audiences are why artists exist, there are a thousand reasons–pure, crass, commercial, and missional reasons.  Truth is, if we’re honest, most of us are a wild combination of motives in dynamic flux.  Whether we tip towards pure or polluted depends on the day, the work at hand, and the prevailing winds of critique, reward, and mood.

In a purist sense, in the ideal sense (and if I’m anything, I’m an idealist–MBTI again), it doesn’t matter at all if a writer has a large readership.  One reader is plenty.  I get random emails from people who have read my book a full decade after it was written, and it means the world to me that people are caught up in singular experiences arising from an encounter with my life of creativity.   Which of course leads to the very natural desire to have more and more people encounter that work.   And my faith that a single encounter with another person, and by extension, with a single work of art, can change worlds for generations to come, is fundamental to the way I’ve lived my life for many years.

Back to Jenny’s question.  Do I want a larger readership?  Yes, I do.  That used to a hard thing for me to say, but as a writer, I want readers.  The more eyes that come across my writing means more opportunities for those consciousness-shifting encounters.  And the point is not only artistic expression, but communication as well Expression has been my default mode, and as Jenny said yesterday, part of what I do is allow my mind to “naturally skip” around those things that matter to me without a ton of structure, especially in this particular forum.   That skipping is part of the permission I give myself to just get words into the air.  For anyone who follows my blog life (Jeff Grady, I’m talking to you), you know that it’s been up and down at best.   Depression, self-criticism, futility, perfectionism, the weight of the imagined world on my back, all of which are variations on ridiculous pride and selfishness (so says Merton, and I believe him), have been derailing me off and on for years.   The every-day-posting of the last two weeks has been unusual, but with the help of readers, I aim to keep it up.

But the whys of this forum are still elusive.   As I say on the “About Jeff” page, it’s about the cultivation and nurturing of God’s presence and beauty in the world.   Maybe this is just tilling the soil of my imagination, my reason, and the constant work of getting some kind of handle on the onslaught of popular culture and it’s powerful thought-forms.   We need to talk, and we need to be heard.   And the whys are multiple and impure.    There are shades of holy longings to change people’s lives, ambitious dreams of writing words that will outlast our breathing, a sheer desire for lots of people to come along and affirm that there was a good reason for us to be in the world, not to mention the thrill that comes just from the work itself.  The words that dance just behind the little cursor going by, knowing that ideas are skipping into the world to maybe do some good…well, often that’s plenty to keep the work going.   And there’s the ever present reality of economics and commercialism, the need to pay bills and feel valuable in a culture that mostly values the creation of things that appeal to nearly everybody.   Not that I blog for money–talk about an exercise in self-deception, if I thought that were the case.   But still, you always hope a random thing leads to a not-so-random thing, maybe even an important opportunity, and in the current professional working life of writers, getting words out through all the channels of discourse matters.

So sure, Jenny, I do want more “hits.”  But mostly, what I want is to make the writing stronger, so that when the “hit” of the web surfer comes, the writing hits back, in ways that interest, inform, entertain, challenge, and over time, play a role (however minor) in transformation.   Skipping stones is fun, but building structures is better.  In the end, that’s what I mean by focusing and narrowing.  Simply getting better at making reading experiences that land powerfully for a growing number of folks.

But in the end, one is enough.   One is all that’s needed.   Jenny or Mr. Grady or theatre friends new or old, bloggers or trollers or my own children; any one of these is enough.

And then of course, there’s that audience of One we keep talking about…

4 Comments

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  1. Good answer. Very good answer.

    I asked those questions because of a conversation I had with Wes about Facebook and blogging, that the whole world has seemed to morph into a “look at me” mentality, as illustrated perfectly by a current sprint commercial.

    As I try daily at getting better to live my life for God, and not for myself, I wonder at my own motivations for posting on facebook and for blogging. I thought I would invite you to the pondering.

  2. Thanks for the invite. It’s a hard thing to figure out, but while I’m figuring it out, I’m going to keep putting words out there.

    Peace,

    Jeff

  3. I have had you on my blog reader since I read Leaving Ruin (and that was a few years ago). Thus, I have been following your blog and am one of your readers. Keep writing, creating and blogging. Focus…? I like the focus of your blog as it is. I see it as creative, sensitive to the world of the mind, heart and emotions and most importantly to the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks,
    Ryan

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