Often one hears that advice to writers that they should write for an audience of one. The idea is that, instead of writing for the lowest common denominator in order to please the widest audience, one could write for a very specific, archetypal person, thus creating a niche of particularly loyal fans. I think this is a good idea. At least for me. In today’s writing market, filled with noise and clamor for attention, sometimes I find myself listening for the still, quiet voice that feels like it is speaking just to me.
The strange thing I have found, however, is that the more particular one gets, the deeper one goes into the particular situations, the more universal the resonance. The more one writes for an audience of one, or, even for oneself, the more one can resonate with the not-insignificant number of people out there who feel the exact same way.
I had the experience on Sunday of hearing a sermon which I was convinced at times had been written to make me personally feel welcomed and affirmed. I found myself falling under its spell and wondering if the pastor had somehow known what I needed to hear and was just feeding it to me as if by the spoonful. But then the rational side of my brain realized that the words he was saying would make anyone feel welcomed and affirmed and that is exactly the effect he wanted to have. His sermon reached out and touched my heart precisely because he found the niche in which I belonged: the type of person who wants to be welcomed and affirmed into a community of people willing to welcome and affirm the otherwise marginalized. And, I suspect that the whole community is made up of people who have been listening to be welcomed and affirmed.
“We are a welcoming and affirming congregation,” the pastor responded to me in an email. That is why I showed up on the doorstep of this congregation, heart racing, to see if it were actually true. And it very much seemed to be true. As I nervously sat in the parking lot for a half hour, trying to watch people go in, I saw a diversity of race and age and manner of dress and demeanor. Yet everyone seemed glad to be there. It didn’t look like a chore at all to show up for this church on a Sunday morning. When I entered the foyer, I was greeted warmly by a woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand until I gave her my name. Then she gave me hers as she welcomed me warmly and told me I could sit anywhere.
The congregation passed another test in my mind when the autistic girl and her mother entered the sanctuary from behind the altar, behind the pastor and through the choir, and proceeded to interrogate the pastor in the midst of his opening comments. The pastor was patient and kind and answered her questions. Then, when her curiosity was satisfied and she settled down, he proceeded with the rest of his talk. The congregation, meanwhile, was full of understanding smiles. They were people who, once welcomed and affirmed themselves, I imagine, were ready and willing to welcome and affirm the other.
So, what does this have to do with the paradox of particularity?
Well, this pastor and this congregation had decided to be particular and a little peculiar. They had decided to be different from other congregations which in ways both overt and subtle have chosen to impose harsh restrictions, purity tests, dress codes, in order to make a congregation that is pure, that is comfortable for some, lowest-common-denominator majority (that might not actually even exist). They had decided at some point to specialize in being the church that welcomed the outcast, affirmed the downtrodden, made space for the strange. “It looks like the island of misfit toys,” the pastor confessed to me over coffee. But it was an island of misfit toys who seemed delighted to be found by each other. Their very specific choice allowed for a stance that the many, many people who feel out of place in other congregations can find a home.
So, what does that have to do with writing?
I think that it is necessary for us to make choices, to take a stand, to decide what stance we will take in our writing. We need to be able to say: “This is what I do. if it works for you, welcome in. If not, go with my blessing.”
Maybe we can fit this attitude into a particular genre of writing, maybe we cannot. Maybe this will appeal to the masses, but it probably won’t. But I suspect that by taking a stand, a very particular stand in a very particular place and time, we will find ourselves welcoming and affirming those who most need to be welcomed and affirmed by us.
And, we might find, that those are the people who are able to welcome and affirm us in return.