Talk to the Volleyball or “Know Your Audience” (Real or Imagined)

Blogging has taught me that some of my best writing–my clearest, most readable narrative voice–emerges when I imagine that I’m writing (or talking) to a specific group of people.

You may have noticed that I often interview myself here at “The Big Thing.”

Really? I never noticed that, Cathy.

Well, I do. I learned this trick writing Comeback Season; whenever I got stuck, I’d bring out my handy-dandy sideline reporter Suzy Hightop. She asked me pointed questions, and I was forced to answer them. Eventually, Suzy became not just a device, but a real person to me. She became my Wilson, the volleyball/friend in Castaway with Tom Hanks. 

Since I started blogging, I’ve learned that when a post is swirling around and going nowhere, I should make up fake interview questions posed by the ideal reader of that particular post.

Like who? 

Sometimes, it’s my students asking for a Letter of Recommendation or how to approach an assignment. Sometimes, it’s all the people I know who loved loved loved Midnight in Paris.

As soon as I know who I’m talking to, boom, the words come and the structure of the piece aligns itself.

Sometimes I figure this out by accident. Over time, I’ve learned to pay attention when a letter or email or memo or Facebook comment starts taking on a life of its own.

For example: my story “YOUR BOOK: A Novel in Stories” which came out in Ninth Letter a few years ago got its start as a Facebook message to writer Kyle Minor, who I have never met personally but correspond with online rather frequently. About 1000 words in, I realized I wasn’t writing a message anymore, I was writing a story, and so I cut and pasted the text from the little Facebook module into Microsoft Word, and boom, three days later, I had a draft of the story. (After the issue came out, I sent Kyle the story and said, “Thank you!”)

Another example: a friend of mine wrote all the essays in his memoir as unsent letters to the kindest, smartest, most understanding person he knew: his MFA thesis adviser. My friend was in a dark place, and he wrote himself out of it by thinking, “I need to explain this to Kelly.” My friend says that if you wrote “Dear Kelly” at the top of each essay in his book, you’d be reading almost exactly what he wrote during those long, lonely nights of anguish and doubt.

Another example: the piece that was published by The Millions about novels vs. short stories in creative writing programs–THE STORY PROBLEM! 10 THOUGHTS ON ACADEMIA’S NOVEL CRISIS!–started out as an email to my graduate fiction workshop, then it became a lecture to be read aloud to them, and then it became a very straightforward pedagogy essay to be submitted to the AWP Chronicle, and then it became more humorous and provocative, something I imagined I was saying to all my creative writing teacher friends on Facebook. 

What brought up this subject, Cathy?

Well, I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve started at least a dozen posts, but couldn’t figure out how to finish them. But then last night, I realized I hadn’t written my 750 words for the day. I had some things on my mind about novel writing, advice for my novel writing class. I should write the class a letter, I thought. So I opened up, typed, “Things I Want to Tell You,” and “Dear Class,” and boom, I wrote the whole thing in 30 minutes. And I really like it, so here it is, if you want to read it. 

Now remember: it’s not like I invented this strategy. 

A few years ago, I went to a lecture by Junot Diaz in which he explained that some of his first stories were actually long, detailed letters he wrote to his brother, who was in the hospital with leukemia. 

A part of the way I stayed connected to my brother was writing these enormous, ridiculous letters about what was going on about our lives, about the neighborhood, and in some ways my complete love of reading had prepared me for the moment that my brother’s illness provided, which was an excuse to now participate in the form I loved so much. So that’s how I started actually, writing letters to someone in a hospital.

In a recent article, Diaz talks about finding the voice of your narrator. “In my experience it won’t kill you if you first figure out the character’s relationship with the telling, with the story, before you even think about what kind of words, what kind of languages, what kind of attitude these folks will be slinging.”

Another example: I attended a craft talk given by Russell Banks, who said that this is how he finds the voice of his narrators: by imagining a context for the talking, even if that context is never alluded to in the fiction itself. For The Sweet Hereafter, he imagined that each of the narrators was being interviewed by a kindly-but-shrewd lawyer; each has something different at stake in telling their side of the story. For Rule of the Bone, Banks asked himself, when does the hardened Chappie (aka “Bone”) ever speak from his heart? The answer: at night, lying in bed, talking to an imaginary brother in the next bed. And that’s he found his narrator’s voice: by imagining just that situation and listening to his character talk.

There are times, of course, when you don’t want to speak from the heart, when the situation calls for the impersonal, not the personal. For example: when you are applying to graduate school or for an academic position, or when you’re applying for a grant or fellowship and you’re competing in a pool of scholars, not creative writers. You gotta know who you’re talking to, respect the way they like to be addressed, and speak their language. 

This, of course, is when things get dicey. When we have to “code switch” from one vernacular to another. I’ll hold off saying more until next time, when the subject will be MFA FAQ: the SOP (Statement of Purpose).

General Teaching Writing


  1. Lowry Pei says:

    Cathy, your stuff is always extremely interesting, useful, and for that matter even motivating. I’m referring both to this and to the letter you wrote to your students. This post reminds me of how I often suggest to students that they try to figure out who their narrator is narrating to, and why — what difference the narrator thinks it will make if they tell this story. The writer isn’t always able to answer the question of who is being addressed, but just trying to find that out seems to help sharpen the focus on a story.

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