Should you write as if no one is reading?

At lunch one day I asked a non-writer friend of mine, in clumsy, fumbling language, whether it was more important to write in a way that was true to your ideas or that connected with other people. His response was immediate: writing was about communication.

I wonder. Nabokov said he thought only about the reception of a few friends when he wrote, and cared not at all about the broader public: still, there is an element of communication there. He also said he wrote for pleasure and published only for money.

Marcel Proust and Henry James knew that what they were writing was largely inaccessible, but that didn’t stop them. Still, they clearly tried hard to publish. Proust pulled strings to win the Prix Goncourt. He cared about the prestige and dissemination of his works. Joyce famously reveled in the thought that Finnegan’s Wake would confound English professors for 100 years. And yet all these authors also clearly viewed writing as a way of seeking truth, a sacred mission.

Ray Bradbury relished writing as a rejuvenating practice apart from publication, a kind of meditation that refreshed him and allowed him to “play in the fields of the Lord.” That didn’t stop him from making enormous amounts of money and influencing generations of readers. Booker-prize winning author John Banville claims that finding the perfect words to describe an experience is to him the closest activity to godliness, and that is why he writes. Immanuel Kant swore, before his Critique of Pure Reason, not to be seduced by the desire for fame, and instead to work out his system to its fullest extent for its own sake. And yet he cared about the judgment of posterity: he wanted to change the field of metaphysics forever, and he did.

Robin LaFevers points out, “[j]ust as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading.” Only then can we “embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from. We need to get some skin in the game. It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories.”

Perhaps this might be akin to writing not for no one at all, but for an ideal audience. Poet Jee Leong Koh asks “Why publish at all if your work does not build the house of poetry? This is a serious question that all serious poets must answer for themselves. It is not just about the ego; it is about something bigger than all of us. Call it the ends of art. If we cannot answer the question, we should not publish. … I consider a book a success when it finds its perfect reader.” And this makes sense because even when we write only for ourselves, we hold within us, as writers know only too well, an audience — indeed, whole populations, often restive.

So perhaps we should write not as if no one were reading, but as if the ideal person were? What would the ideal person be like? Perhaps it would be someone absolutely nonjudgmental, with impeccable taste, and in a position to judge the congruence between what we expressed and what was in our hearts?

Rainer Maria Rilke advises his friend, in Letters to a Young Poet, to “[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.” The emphasis on necessity suggests an inner impulse towards expression rather than a focus on communicating with a particular someone.

What does this all mean? To me it suggests that the best writing implies a kind of absolute honesty which by its very nature automatically communicates to a perfect audience, and that this, rather than an aim to impress any particular contemporary, is the best aim for an artist. As Emerson puts it, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men–that is genius.”