The Shared Experience

The other night, Ian and I walked up with hundreds of others after dark to see the Spectra lights on the cenotaph in Hobart.  For those not in the know, it's a big grid of lights set into the ground, shooting up a column of blue light for kilometres into the sky, making you feel like you're about to be beamed up by Scotty.

Joking aside, it's quite spectacular.  We'd seen it before from a distance (and almost driven off the road in consequence), but this was the first time we'd been up to the base of the light column itself.  As you walk towards it through the dark, the light towers above you and eerie sounds drown out the excited chatter.  You can walk around the blocks holding the lights on the ground so you're right in the middle of it, looking up as the light streams around you.

But it wasn't until we'd weaved our way out of the crowd in the lights and took a step back that I realised that most people weren't looking up at all.  I was confused.  You walk all that way in the freezing cold to stand in a giant column of light, and you don't look up?  What were they doing?  Trying to maintain the integrity of their spines?  Writing 'Brad woz ere' on the blocks?  Taking selfies?

Then I realised that they were looking at each other.  They were experiencing something new, and they were looking around to see if the crowd around them was experiencing the same thing too.

You know when you're watching a film or a TV show with someone, and you laugh at something, and turn your head away from the screen to see if your companion is laughing too?  I do it all the time, I think for confirmation.  Was I right in thinking that Alexis Denisof dancing badly is funny?  How's my sense of humour?  Is my companion enjoying it as much as I am?  Are we having a moment?

And we don't just judge ourselves by how others react; we judge them, too.  It would explain a strange occurrence earlier in the evening.  We'd been down to Salamanca for the Dark MOFO Winter Feast, and had found a spot on a bench next to a young family.  After a little while sitting there, the mother asked whether we'd watch her pram for a few minutes while she went and chased her children.

I readily assented - no problem, we'll be here for a while, off you go - but then it occurred to me what a strange request it was.  She'd never met us before, but she was ready to trust us with her possessions.  I mean, there probably weren't any valuables in the pram.  No wallets or cameras or children.  Still, a pram's got to be worth a bit, and what a pain if someone took off with your last nappy and your son's favourite snuggly toy!

So what made this woman trust us after such a short amount of time?  What had recommended us?  I don't think it was our actions: we were both drinking alcohol, and Ian had managed to trip her toddler up with his steel-capped boots.  Did we have trustworthy faces?  Was Hobart just that kind of friendly place where you make pals simply by sitting next to someone?  The woman certainly felt comfortable enough to leave us stranded on our cold bench, guarding her possessions with increasingly numb bums while she chatted to some people across the way for a good half hour.

It was only later, looking at the people around the lights, that I realised that she'd trusted us because we'd experienced something together.  We'd listened to and applauded the same musicians; we'd gasped simultaneously when the flames flared up around us; we'd eaten the same food, smelled the same smells, smiled at the same time.  Instant connection.

It's like when you find out that the boring person who's worked down the hall from you for years is also a 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' fan, and suddenly you've got a new BFF.  We can't help it.  We're human; we crave connection.  It confirms in ourselves that we are worthy, that our opinions are shared and therefore valid.

I mention all this because, with writing, it's different.  There is no instant confirmation that what you're writing is any good.  You can't look up from your computer to see if your audience is enjoying things so far; your audience probably won't exist for a few years after you start your first book.  Unless, of course, you sit someone down next to you as you write and demand that they read over your shoulder, preferably laughing heartily or sobbing into aforementioned shoulder - whatever's appropriate.

(And, yes, I've made a few people do that.  I heartily love those people.)

But, generally speaking, when you write something there is always a period of time before you get any feedback.  Even sending a text, you have to wait to find out the response.  Did they laugh?  Did they miss the joke?  Did they take offence?  You don't find out until you get a text back.  And until you get that feedback, you have to rely on your own judgement as to whether that piece of writing, whether it's a text or an email or a dissertation or a novel, is any good.

I think that's why some people say you should always write for yourself; don't write for an unknown audience or publisher or editor.  Write what you like, be true to your artistic self, etc.

I have a few problems with this notion.  One is that I've only ever heard this 'write for yourself' speech from successful novelists who have the privilege of writing whatever they want, in the knowledge that it will be published by their usual publisher and bought by their already established audience.  Not that I blame them - I aspire to be that smug.  I'm just not there yet.

Another problem is that I'm not sure I trust my own judgement.  I've written things in the past that I thought were pretty damned hot.  Rereading them, they're not.

In addition to this, if I were only writing for myself, I wouldn't write anything down.  I'd just sit in a corner and daydream all the time, which I don't think Ian would deem a reasonable excuse for not doing the dishes.  I write things so I can share them.

But, in order to write anything of any length, I need that confirmation from others as I go.  So I shall continue to bribe and beg and cajole my friends and family into being my support readers, cheering me along as I puff and pant my way through literary marathons.

Because I don't know how else to do it.