It’s near midnight on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The air is thick with midsummer heat and cars zipper left to right and right to left across the Williamsburg Bridge directly over my head. I am here visiting my sister who lives about a mile away in Greenpoint. Despite my exhaustion from the near thirty blocks we walked earlier in the day, and the push of my tender heels against my not-yet broken in sandals, I am here with a sweating glass of tap water in my hand, surrounded by my sister’s friends: a mix of Gen X’ers from various backgrounds all seemingly united by a common love for Game of Thrones. I sit apart from the crowd on a hard picnic-style bench and watch the underbellies of the cars above me. Josue, my sister’s friend, wanders over and sits next to me. We know one another tentatively, having met a handful of times, most recently at a reading I gave in Manhattan a few weeks earlier.
“I’m a big fan of your poetry,” Josue says loudly over the hum of the traffic hanging like a hammock over our heads.
“Oh, thanks,” I blush. I’ve never learned to take a compliment.
“No, I mean it,” he says, “Your reading at KGB was great. You were so funny.”
“Oh no,” I say modestly, “they were just a good crowd.” And they were. But you know what? I was good too. It was a great reading, the kind of reading where I had the crowd right there in my hands. They laughed in all of the right places, stayed quiet when I needed them to, and felt sadness in their hearts when the moment called for empathy. For a reader, it doesn’t get any better. For a writer, it doesn’t get any better.
“I could never read like that in front of people,” Josue muses. “How do you pick what you’re going to read?” he asks.
I’ve been asked this question before, as have many of my friends who’ve read their work in public. It’s something not a lot of people understand; our willingness and desire to stand in front of a crowd and share ourselves in a very private and intense way. If you’ve never done it, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend. Therefore, I usually give some kind of generic answer and move on. But Josue is a good guy, and he seems genuinely interested in my process.
“The secret,” I tell him, “is to bring a lot of diverse stuff to read. I read something I think will work, and if it doesn’t, I adjust.”
“So you read the crowd?” he asks.
I take a deep swig of my warm tap water and answer, “Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s writing with an intended audience in mind. As I’m writing, I can almost imagine the crowd and how they’re going to react to the material.”
“But how do you read the crowd? How do you know?” he presses.
“It’s not an exact science, but I do my best to consider who they are. What age they are, what life experiences they may have had, what stage of life they’re in, stuff like that,” I answer.
Later, after we’ve gone home and I’m staring at the ceiling in my sister’s fourth floor pre-war apartment, I make a connection I have been searching for since I started teaching more than five years ago. As a creative writer, I do exactly what I ask my composition students to do all of the time: I consider my rhetorical situation. I think about my audience, my genre, and my purpose before I write or perform anything.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s taken me a long time and many wrong choices to get to this point. I’ve read spoken-word poetry full of pop culture references to a group of grandmothers at a library. I’ve read about Weight Watchers and baby weight, to rooms full of young, thin, teenagers who stared at me like I had two heads and one of them was on fire. I’ve made those mistakes, the mistakes of a beginning writer, the mistakes of a novice reader. So I adjusted. I changed my process. I learned how to evaluate the audience before I read, but more importantly, before I write.
To me, this is what the Writing Center in the CTLE provides for University of Scranton students: a place to experiment with voice, with genre, with audience, and with purpose. When I hear students reading papers aloud to consultants, I see the connections being made and the transformation taking shape. For all intents and purposes, the Writing Center consultants become those grandmothers sitting in the library, or the young, thin teens staring back. They become the test audience, the safety net, and the student’s soft place to fall. It is my hope that with practice, the students who use the Writing Center on a regular basis will learn to shift their writing to meet the needs of their audience. And that they will begin to build –brick by brick- the bridge between writer and reader, between audience and voice, between genre and purpose, and that their bridge will be as strong and as purposeful as the expansive sky way between Williamsburg and Manhattan lighting up rooftops in Brooklyn.
**The Writing Center is located in the CTLE (Loyola Science Center, room 588). Call today for an appointment: 570-941-6147**