Most of the people I know who love Vonnegut, read him in high school. I tried. I read Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, expecting to have the life-altering experiences my peers had. It didn’t happen to me. I didn’t get it. So when Vonnegut recently passed away, I did not get nostalgic nor did I re-read Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre. I did, however, listen with keen interest to the Vonnegut interviews that re-broadcast on the radio. I was impressed by the candid humility with which he spoke, and one thing in particular that Vonnegut said struck me and gained purchase in my mind. In paraphrase, he said he believed that every great piece of writing is written for a single person, that great literature was always written with one person in the author’s mind.
The simplicity and veracity of this statement moved me to reflect on my work as a writer and as a teacher of writing. Every writer will agree that writing itself is an act of great disclosure – there is little as revealing as tipping your soul onto the surface of a blank page. But no one sees the tenuous interior of that intimacy more thoroughly than those who teach writing. The student, addressing her work directly to and for her teacher, thinks of her writing as an avowal, vulnerable and assailable. The teacher must acknowledge this and temper her comments with both care and probity. The exchange that grows out of this almost epistolary relationship can acquire deep significance for both student and teacher and can lead to powerful writing.
I first experienced this vital connection in college. Lowry Pei taught me the importance of reading and writing with solicitude and circumspection. He read my work as though I was his only student; he read my work as though he wanted to learn as well as teach. He showed me when I got it right. His reading became a mirror for my writing, and I endeavored to reciprocate what he gave. Years have passed since I was a student in Lowry’s class, but because I often hold him in the palm of my mind as I write, he remains my audience, the secret keeper of my prose.
Lowry’s attentions to my early efforts have made me believe in the importance for writers to imagine a reader who cares about us, a reader who will encourage us without babying us, a reader who will tell us when we get it right. When we find that reader, that singular audience, we give more, we become more confidential. Our audience elicits more expressive writing from us, and we try to get it right more often.
Vonnegut knew that delivering yourself wholly to your audience is a terrifying act of trust, like stepping into a dark and unfamiliar stairway. He also knew that a single hand reaching toward you is all you need to navigate this dim interior. Like Vonnegut, I believe in an audience of one.
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