Writing for Introspection vs Writing for an Audience

Photo by Elena Kalis
Photo by Elena Kalis

Many moons ago, I wrote about the benefits of journalling. I journaled as a child, continued sporadically as a teen, and then with increased regularity after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which recommends morning pages as a conduit for creativity. Then I had children. Often, it’s not an alarm that wakes me up, but a child, and the quiet moment for picking up pen and paper gets swallowed up in their immediate needs.

The truth is, nowadays I buy far more notebooks than I can fill. I buy them for their beauty, the feel of their crisp, smooth pages, but more often than not my writing takes place on a keyboard, not on a page. My journal sits unloved on my bedside table. Even so, I am in effect still journalling: here on my blog, on my Facebook page, on Twitter, the Whats App messages I exchange with those closest to me, and lately, long emails with penpals of old about the state of the world, my fears and dreams. All these are records of how I feel and what I am thinking.

In the future, the diaries of writers that are fixtures on my bookshelf – that of Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf – may be taken not only from the journals of writers, thinkers and philosophers, but from multiple forms. And for us lesser beings, such is the thrust of technology, that our descendants may well retain access to our thoughts in ways that have not been possible for previous generations. Imagine having access to your great-grandmother’s thoughts about the world and how she made her way through it. Imagine having a tangible thread between your mind and hers, being able to discern the allegiances you shared, the strengths, the faults.

Photo by Alice Popkorn
Photo by Alice Popkorn

Despite all this, one thing stands: I write to understand myself, to untie the knot of thoughts in my head. What that means is that a large part of writing is introspection. Thinking that is done even before black pixels hit the white page. But what happens if today’s mediums and pastimes no longer leave room for the private act of introspection? What if we are encouraged to react, to make public stands, to be megaphones without a filter, or equally suspect, with an agenda?

When we write for an audience we no longer write with the purity of a diarist, who never believes s/he will be read. We are conscious of our own image and our peers; we seek to influence and perhaps manipulate, we hide or defend our foibles and therefore perhaps dilute the truth of what we see and feel. And that, my friends, is why journalling in the real sense of the word, is too valuable to abandon. You see, not a hair’s breadth separates you from the pages of your journal, and there, you might discern things that you try to keep hidden from everyone, even yourself.

10 thoughts on “Writing for Introspection vs Writing for an Audience

  1. Ooh, Nillu, I love this so much! As an avid journal-writer who also writes frequently for the outside world, I see so clearly how important the two are, and how different. To polish your prose and learn to write for an audience, you must write for the public; but to learn who you really are, to hone your style and your identity and the crucible of your artist’s core, you must write only for yourself. A musician who only practices for an audience won’t be very good; nor, then, would a writer who only ever performs for the public. Great post, my dear, and I’d love to read more about what you write about in your journals.

    1. Hi love, great analogy with the musician. So true. There are so many ways to hone our craft and knowing ourselves is a brilliant one. How can we know others or reflect the world accurately without that? To write you need to live but also remember and journals help with that too, especially with my hazy memory ;). As for my journal, sometimes it’s little seeds of ideas for stories or vignettes that have caught my eye. A record of travels. Often it’s my disappointments, worries or little hurts. That way they are expelled and don’t hold me back as much as I start the day. Now to peek between the pages of yours, that would be something!

  2. This resonates … ‘I write to understand myself, to untie the knot of thoughts in my head …’
    I keep bedside journals that are unintelligible to anyone but me. I scribble down keywords and the occasional sentence to resurrect quirky thoughts or the memory of my dreams. My blog carries distilled versions of what’s on my mind.
    In a way it’s the struggle to sculpt meaning with words helps me to understand myself better.
    I print out my posts, just in case an electric storm prevents computers from rebooting themselves. :)

    1. Thanks for this. Perfect phrase there: ‘sculpt meaning’. I was struggling to find a way to express exactly that in this post. I love the thought that your journals are unintelligible to others, that you are an enigma, a perfect code. And yes, losing our work would be such a blow. Thanks for stopping by, Nillu

  3. “I write to understand myself, to untie the thoughts in my head” is such an important truth not understood by people who don’t write, who continually ask, ‘When will you be ‘done’? Our writing is better with the increased authenticity of being focused focused on process, not product. I would even be so bold as to say the world benefits when we do that internal work… I have a kindred post, ‘For Writing’s Sake’ Journal on, Sister!

    1. Yes! That almost sounds egoistic, doesn’t it, but I completely agree. Internal work means more compassion, more emotional awareness certainly and maybe even increased ability to connect the dots. I’ll pop over to yours. The osmosis of ideas across the internet makes it so like a living breathing organism :)

  4. I completely agree – I think that journalling is probably the best training a prospective writer can have, because you have this great well of experiences to use as fuel whilst you hone your writing style.

    I don’t think I’ve ever written any piece of fiction that has not been (in some way) autobiographical. Sometimes it can be as high as 90% real (with details changed) or sometimes it could be a location, or a person, or a single sentence once heard in passing. These are the events I put into my journals and they always resurface in some way in my stories. Exhibit One – my endless fascination with abandoned railway lines having lived next to one during my formulative years.

    To writers who are scared that their work is too personal and no audience is going to be interested, you just have to step back and examine the laws of averages. No one – not one single person – has a taste that is totally unique and one-of-a-kind. There is always someone else out there who likes the same things you do, even if you decided to write a story about a llama who shaves off its fur and becomes a superhero. So as long as you remain true to yourself and what you like and know, someone else out there will be willing to read it, and will understand it (and you.)

    1. Jimmi! Oh my word, this is the best start to the day in ages. I’ve missed you but I hardly do much more than check in at Twitter nowadays. It moves so fast – and I’ve been trying to go slower – and I am less invested there than in the early days. How are you?

      And yes, I know what you mean. That’s a great point. I often put down anecdotes or lines I’ve heard or that particularly stand out from my own life. A journal as a memory bank of interesting things. Yes, I’ve always noticed railway lines popping up in your writing and photographs.

      Being personal is the way to really resonate in it? Appealing to the masses, at least, with longevity, is barely possible nowadays, and besides, I’d rather be truer to myself and find my tribe, rather than emptily perform. Really good to hear you. If you’re on fb search me out xx

      1. Nillu! It is always a delight to see your (too) infrequent posts up on here. But, of course, I understand that you have so much going on. Nevertheless, a Nillu blog update always seems to herald a long-winded and overly verbose comment. Perhaps it’s like a child denied chocolate being given the keys to a sweet shop and ten minutes alone.

        I am well, I hope you are too?

        I think, eventually, the idea of appealing to the masses will become as outdated as the idea of appealing to a specific gender (men like war, women like swarthy sex with the house gardener.) It feels to me, from my inexpert armchair, that culture across the board – art, music and literature – is becoming more fragmented as people find more ways to get their work out there. It’s a bit like television; once there were four channels each with tens of millions of viewers, now there are thousands of channels and the viewership is much more dispersed, not to mention Netflix and Amazon and the like. So it is with literature – it is no longer the rule that one has to go cap in hand to a small group of enormous publishers. Between self-publication and independent presses, it is more splintered than ever.

        Which is a roundabout way of saying, there is no such thing as ‘masses’ anymore, and it is useless trying to appeal to them. Oh I know, every now and then a Fifty Shades or a Dan Brown will capture the general imagination (if that’s not a contradiction considering the relative ‘qualities’ of those works), but they are no longer the norm. So long as one doesn’t fall into the echo chamber, it cannot be harmful to stick with what one knows in the knowledge that others will follow.

        I’m afraid I’m not on Facebook. It’s only Twitter and Instagram for me social media wise. If I ever change my mind, and go back to it, I will look you up, promise x

      2. This comment made me chuckle in lots of places. Swarthy sex with a gardener?! Hahahaha! Yes, I’m only getting the chance to update the blog a couple of times a month now. And with you entirely about splintered audiences. It’s a good thing. Who wants to have the same taste as your next door neighbour? ;). And yes, I sometimes think about giving up fb, but it’s still the easiest way for me to keep in touch with closest friends and family. Speak soon, lots of love x

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