Pleasing yourself is always fun, and there’s no point in writing something that doesn’t please you, but if you write just to please yourself you might find you’re the only one interested in what you’ve done. Even Walt Whitman in his great work of self-expression, “Song of Myself,” wastes no time in pointing out he’s writing for more than himself, since, “what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
In Leaves of Grass Whitman has expressed a personal statement that resonates as the collective American imagination and experience. That’s why we continue reading him. For the rest of us, with humbler aspirations, the question becomes, How do we write so that the incidents and observations of our work belong to other readers as well as ourselves?
“Craft” is the word we use to refer to all the techniques and strategies employed to provoke our reader’s interest and elicit a response. The desire for self-expression can be gratified with a rude outburst over a stubbed toe. Engaging readers in an emotional experience requires planning, imagination, and a sincere desire to please someone else.
In this respect, some theorists have been more helpful to writers than others. The New Critics viewed literary works as little machines making meaning that could be explicated for less adroit readers. This elevated the significance of literary work but left its interpretation in the hands of the subtle few. Poststructuralists read for the gaps that revealed the absence of inherent meaning in a text; readers rather than writers produced the experiences they enjoyed. Rhetorical theorists such as Kenneth Burke (and the Structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson) thought of communication of all kinds as transactional acts, designed by a writer to be interpreted by a reader, a planned collaborative expression and reconstruction of experience. Not a bad way to think about the words you put on paper.
Writing for yourself -- to vent emotion or to force yourself to observe the world carefully -- can be a rewarding experience, as pleasurable as a truly vindictive diary entry. But if you aspire to forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race (as James Joyce’s young artist Stephen Dedalus declares), you’d better start planning to please somebody else.