Is Anyone Out There?

A few months ago we were in New York to celebrate our daughter’s graduation, and while we were there, we saw Garrison Keillor at a little bookstore in Brooklyn. Mr. Keillor (“May I call you Garrison?”) was there allegedly to do a reading of his newest book, The Keillor Reader, but he never cracked the book. Instead, he delighted us with a monologue.

Garrison KeillorBeginning with how he wanted to be a writer in his early teens, Garrison wove a tale of how his career as a writer began. He used a narrator’s device, perhaps unconsciously, saying “you” instead of “I,” which pulled us into his stories as if we were there, as if we were Garrison himself.

I was most struck by a story he told about getting a job at his college radio station, a job for which he woke up at 4:00 each morning to labor away in the studio, a job that gave him not only a stipend but the satisfaction of making a contribution to the world and honing his craft which would later make him famous as the storyteller of the people who inhabit the fictitious Lake Wobegon. The news from the college radio station was supposed to be broadcast throughout the campus, inspiring early risers and informing all who listened. Nine months after beginning his gig, he learned that through some mistake of engineering, none of the speakers throughout the campus had been properly connected. For nearly a year, he had dragged himself out of bed, worked through an early morning shift at the radio station and given his heart and soul to an audience that wasn’t there.

After the initial shock of the punchline (Four in the morning! Nearly a year! No one was listening!), I thought more about the delicate contract between the writer and the audience. I wondered, does it really  matter that as Garrison met his obligations day after day, practicing the art of storytelling and refining his radio voice, no one was there to hear him? There’s something to be said for focusing on process vs. results. Granted, it’s great to have an audience. We write, speak, sing, to move people, to educate, illuminate, inspire. But is the creative act enough in itself? What if no one is out there–would we do it anyway?

Like many people, I keep a journal and with that exercise I write just for me. I no longer fancy myself as someone whose journals will be published upon her death, a literary legend whose quirky actions are explained by insights from her personal diary. In fact, I have an exit plan whereby a good friend will abscond with my diaries and burn them… there’s a lot of whining and complaining in those hand-written pages, a lot of drivel that I don’t want to be my legacy. But writing in a journal is like doing a radio show where the speakers aren’t attached to the studio. If there’s any audience at all that will appreciate my journal writings, it’s the older me, or maybe it’s just my daily letter to God.

My friend and master teacher Kevin O’Connor says, “When you’re writing a book, write it to just one person.” I think that is great advice. The act of communicating is, indeed, an act of faith. Assume someone’s listening. And even if there’s no one there, it’s good exercise for when you get a real audience. What about you… are you focused on process or results? And what have you noticed about the two?

Please comment below–I’d love to hear from you.

[Photo credits: Masthead– http://www.newyork-sights.net; Garrison Keillor–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrison_Keillor]

7 thoughts on “Is Anyone Out There?

  1. I practice to improve process, hope for results, and would be thrilled if it’s of contribution… but to be honest I write to be self-expressed. When I write it’s because I have a thought I want to get down. I want to get my moment of insight out so that later I can go back and remind myself what I was thinking at the time.
    If no one’s listening, well- at least I’m narcissistic enough to enjoy my own writing so it still makes it worth the effort 🙂

    1. Maritess–you are so kind to read and comment on my blog! Yes, I agree the investment in our process is worth the time… And appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Thank you for your contribution!

    2. Writing is a form of self-expression for me, too, Joy… and some of it is just honing the craft so when we DO have an audience, we’ve refined our thoughts. I think the most important message I got from Garrison’s story was, keep puttin’ it out there! Thanks so much for your contribution–and as you know, I’m listening.

  2. If you are writing in a journal, I would think it would be a waste of time if someone wasn’t listening…especially if that that person was the writer.

    1. It’s embarrassing sometimes to read old journal entries, but in a way it is a “letter to myself,” Jeff. Joan Didion, a wonderful novelist, wrote once that she journals to stay on good terms with her old self and to keep herself honest (paraphrasing). Thank you so much for visiting my blog and adding a comment!

  3. Ms Austin, you are a BRILLIANT blogger. I am a compulsive writer and not writing is a literal descent into mental illness for me. I just think we need to practice writing as a habit and if you want to write a book, then it’s book writing as a habit, even if it is only 5 minutes a day. As far as writing FOR anything, I think it’s a mistake. I say, “write to write:).”

    1. Ms. Gustafson–thank you so much for writing HERE! “Write to write” indeed. Thanks for being my Writing Buddy and congratulations on your new book, My Wish, the story of Bhante Sujatha, the Buddhist monk who brings such happiness to the world. You’re an author!

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