Writing is a Performance Art: On the ‘Fan Mystique’

Recently I read that “writing is a performance art.”  I hadn’t considered it in quite that light before, but yes, it most definitely is.  Every time I put my written work out there, on this blog or anywhere else where it can be read by others, I am stepping out onto the stage, just as surely as I would in a dance performance.

Like any performer, I have inadvertently become a target for all kinds of projections, many of which have nothing to do with who I am.  Since I often write about my personal life, it complicates things even more.  Awhile back I received a long fan letter from a 21 year old reader who had just found one of my older published essays and was practically bursting at the seams with effusive praise.  He poured his heart out to me, in extremely over-the-top, flowery language, asking if I would “kindly welcome” him aboard my “stupendously honorary team.”  (Heh.)  He wanted to correspond personally with me and told me he hoped I would “share my thoughts with him”.  Eep!  I appreciated the compliments, of course, and I always appreciate knowing that people are reading and enjoying my work, but it wasn’t easy to write him a let-down letter.

Being on this end of the “fan mystique” is a new experience for me.  But I remember vividly the intense exhilaration I experienced at his age when I discovered a writer whose work really spoke to me, so I tried to be gentle in my reply to him.  Brings to mind a quote I love from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s amazing book Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life:

“…the exchange of meaning between a writer and a reader can be exceptionally intimate. It is one of the joys of reading; people expect it (though many times they do not get it if the writing is poor).  It is crucial to remember that there is always a reaching toward intimacy whenever a reader picks up a book and begins to read.”

As I read through his letter, I smiled and remembered my own youthful literary enthusiasms and cringe-worthy over-eager fan letters to other writers.  He came across as such a sweet kid, clueless though he is about the harsher realities of being a writer, and he seemed to have a certain facility with the English language.  I wrote a reply to him in which I encouraged him to keep writing, keep honing his craft, and keep following the callings of his heart.  It was kind of bittersweet.  I told him I thought he’d do pretty well with a good editor to help him trim down all that florid prose.  (I did talk briefly about the unglamorous realities of writing, but I did it gently.  I left out the part about how I’ve survived on food stamps for three years now, and have sometimes turned down social opportunities because spending $5 on bus fare stretches my shoestring budget past the breaking point.  I mean, what starry-eyed young writer really wants to hear that struggling artist stuff?)

Later on, I posted about this on Facebook, and a musician friend, Henry Lauer, commented:

“I’ve had similar experiences in the past as a musician.  If you do a good performance, then you enable your audience to connect with something vulnerable in themselves.

“However sometimes they confuse that inner connection with a connection with you the performer, and approach you to tell you all about their deep-and-meaningfuls.  A sure recipe for awkward and confusing post-performance conversations.

“Of course, I’ve been the awkward audience member, too…”

It can be so difficult to resist putting people on pedestals when we greatly admire their art – and this is even true for those of us who’ve been on both sides of the dynamic and are able to see its limitations very clearly.

“If you do a good performance, then you enable your audience to connect with something vulnerable in themselves.”  Yes!  That is one of the reasons I write, and it can be applied to all the arts.  If I’ve done my work well – if I’ve been faithful to my artistic vision and written what is actually in me to write, rather than what an empty pocketbook or social approval dictates – then my readers have the opportunity to see parts of themselves through the lens of my written work.  I will endeavour to be as patient and understanding as possible whenever readers confuse that inner connection with a connection to me, the writer and performer, and I will be mindful to keep my own fan mystique in check when I notice that I am making the same error with the artists whose work I admire.


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