A few years ago I hit a wall where I just stopped writing. I didnít see the point anymore because I had no way of deciding what I should be writing about or to whom I should address it. And if I was only doing it for myself, I figured I could just save myself the trouble and nobody would even notice. But luckily, someone did. What finally dragged me back out of my hole was a book I did with Markus Hansen called Audience of One. In response to my crisis of topic and style selection, Markus proposed that he be the one to give me titles, and that I could write about these titles as though I were addressing only him. He hoped, by freeing me from the choices of subject and target audience, that he might help me turn the arbitrary into a strength and get me writing again. Well, it worked. As soon as I had the weight of those decisions taken off of my shoulders, my writing hand started twitching at my side like that of a gunslinger at one minute to noon.
After we did that book, I soon found myself missing the sense of liberation Iíd gotten from the process. The project with Markus had been refreshingly straightforward. Heíd told me what to write about, told me what he thought of it, and then published the book. It doesnít get any less complicated than that. He was just one person, and he was my friend. So as long as I knew which stories of mine he enjoyed hearing, or which mannerisms he liked in my writing, I could tailor everything to his fancy. This isnít to say that he liked all the essays I wrote, because Iím not sure that he did, but at least I had a direction in which to aim them all before I pulled the trigger. Yet one big question remained. Could anyone other than Markus relate to the book? I still hadnít tackled the problem of how one goes about writing something that will speak to different people in different ways.
For my next book, I wanted to stretch the process out a little and open up a wider conversation. I wondered if that freedom Iíd found with Markus could be parlayed into a relationship with a larger group of readers. So this time around, Iíve invited twelve new audience members to join me and give me the titles to provoke my essays. The people Iíve chosen to contribute these titles are people I love, admire and respect. They are among my favorite artists and thinkers. They are, in a few cases, people who have saved my life, and in several cases, people with whom Iíve fallen in love. They are people Iíve known for years, and probably the ones who know me best. A jury of my peers, if you will. So if thereís anything that I should be writing about, these are the people who Iíd expect to know what it is.
All of these people like some things about my writing and dislike others. They prefer different genres and styles. And they also have diverse and mixed feelings about me as a person. They represent the directions in which I am pushed and pulled in my life, as well as in my writing. In each chapter, I tried to think of the person whoíd given me the titles and write their pieces in a way that would reflect what I feel I share with them. But that was easier said than done. In some cases I seem to have nailed the target, while in others Iíve missed it by a country mile. At times, I felt like I was going against my instincts in an effort to appease the recipient, but at other times I felt like the title giver was helping me unearth genuine instincts I didnít previously know I had. I was also torn between trying to address things to these twelve people that they hadnít heard before, and trying to accurately report the bridge between us to the world on our mutual behalf.
I have always been a little bit repulsed by the game of artificial distance between the Ďwriterí and the Ďaudience.í There seems to be a time-honored curtain of mystery, suggesting that an author is something other than just a normal person who is trying to be a better writer the same way that anyone else is trying to be a better butcher or a better athlete. In this book, I wanted to set fire to that curtain and record some of the uncensored, demystified process onto the page. These audience members hold intimate keys to my deepest doubts and my warring inner voices. They are the opinions that influence my work, and therefore they control the most volatile ingredients of my creative schizophrenia. I wanted to know if the different directions of their pushing and pulling would give this project a broader appeal, or just tear me limb from limb and leave me fragmented, with no cohesive voice. Screw the mystery and intrigue. We donít have any secrets here. This is an open therapy session. This is a cry for help.
Some of the pieces are autobiographical (with a few names changed to protect the guilty), some are just observations or metaphors. Some are intimate, confessional, fragile stories, and others are pontifications on subjects about which I know little to nothing. They are overlapping, cross-referencing, and sometimes repetitive (as certain themes seemed to recur when I dug into my attitudes on various subjects). But occasionally, in my bridge building, I also found myself coming at the same issue from multiple opposing viewpoints. What all these pieces do, however, have in common is that they are all attempts to figure out what I should write about, how I should write it, and for whom. So the misses are as interesting to me as the hits. But whatís even more interesting to me is the extent to which anyone will agree on which pieces hit and which ones miss. And thatís where the intros come in.
I asked each of my title contributors to write an introduction for their chapter, and to touch on three things: how they chose their titles, what they thought of what I did with them, and what they thought about the project in general. I didnít edit or censor these introductions in any way, so they are, as they appear here, the responses I got to those questions. I also didnít influence, modify, or even discuss the titles with any of these people during the writing process. I just responded to the titles with a chapter of the finished pieces, ordered in the same sequence as the titles I received. And now the audience has responded to those pieces in their introductions. My hope is that their feedback will illuminate the expectations between the reader and the author and help us navigate some of the murky water in which weíre all flailing around, trying to find one another.
I am used to writing words into the darkness, with no idea who will read them or with what desires. But even when readers are present to answer those questions (as my friends have so kindly done here), itís not automatically easy to connect with them. So I canít begin to imagine, should these bottles arrive on an unknown shore, how the messages they contain might be received. I can only know what messages I have to choose from, and here they are. This is an inventory of topics and opinions, anecdotes and explorations. A naked skeletal structure from which the next direction of my writing can hopefully hang its hat. A personal excavation assisted by a talented group of loving archivists. These might be subjects that only these twelve people want to read about. And the pieces might not even please the customers who ordered them. But nevertheless, I now cast them out into the world to find their own friends.