Did you notice, in that post I wrote last week about the value of brainstorming your story ideas, that I slipped in a little test of your cultural expertise? It was the post about how daunting it can be to get the first words of your story up on the blank white screen. The remedy I suggested was simply to postpone writing the story and instead, write yourself a letter about the story. While talking about the kinds of questions you might want to noodle around with, I slipped in a reference to a certain 18th-century French Enlightenment philosopher. Here’s the paragraph again:
What’s it about? Who’s in it? What are their names? What if their names were different? What if you had to leave somebody out? Is there somebody in the story who’s blind, or going blind, or sells blinds, or owns a blind dog? What if there were? Does anybody like to tell that joke about the time René Descartes walked into a bar? Is that a machete on the table? Who dies? Why?
Wait a minute. That joke about the time René Descartes walked into a bar? Sure—everybody knows that one, right?
So René Descartes walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “Can I fix you a drink?” Descartes replies, “I think not”—and disappears.
Now, you’re either going to get that joke or you’re not. It’s a very clever joke—unless you happen to have skipped Phil 101 back in school and don’t know that it was René Descartes who famously proved his own existence with the words, Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.
So why did I refer to that joke when I wrote about putting together your story? Because one of the things you have to do when you’re writing a story is identify your likely readers. Your references and allusions are part of the language in which it’s told. You have to be careful with your references and allusions, or you’ll be speaking a foreign tongue.
When I teach my evening short-story class, I make many references to old movies—Casablanca in particular. But the first time I say, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” half the people in my class stare at me blankly. They don’t get the reference. It’s not that they’re dumb or illiterate. It’s that times change.
So I tell these same students to decide, before they write, who it is they’re writing for. (I call this Writing, Step 2. If you’re curious, here’s Writing, Step 1.) You can’t have your protagonist say, “Here’s looking at you kid” if you’ve no expectation that your readers will get the reference. You and they must speak the same language.
So how do you decide who’s your reader? If you’re writing in a genre—say, romance or police procedurals—it’s easy. You probably know what your readers are like because you read this stuff yourself. But if you’re writing outside a genre, that is, writing out of your core inclination to express what’s in you—what you’ve picked up over time, what you’ve made of it all—then the best reader to picture is probably someone who personally knows and appreciates you and with whom you’ve shared a story or two over time. You’ll likely have a shared vocabulary to draw upon, similar—at least in their broadest outlines—life experiences, and similar stores of cultural knowledge. People like this are often called ”friends.” Write for yours specifically, and assume that somewhere out there are other prospective readers who are a lot like them.
Every friend I have would get a reference to Casablanca. My students, who often become my friends by the time the course is over, must see Casablanca or have me nag them every week until they do. It’s an assignment. But should I also assign them a basic philosophy textbook next time so that they’ll get the Descartes joke? I think not.