This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Writing to an unknown audience

So I’ve been blogging here on “As Yet Untitled” for about a month now. And I thought it might be an appropriate time to reflect on my first month.

My previous blogging experience has been on two team blogs, the first a group of college friends and the second Young Anabaptist Radicals. In both cases I knew that I had a built in audience – my fellow bloggers. Here at the Mennonite I’m not as clear on who I’m writing for. One of the ways a new blogger traditionally learns to understand his or her audience is through comments, but I haven’t gotten any of those thus far.

Perhaps writing to an unknown audience is a good exercise in humility. Perhaps it keeps me from getting too puffed up and proud. The act of writing itself takes a certain amount of ego – to believe you have something worth saying and making others read. This is a dynamic that Mennonite writers have always been more aware of then others. Our whole lives we’ve been taught “Jesus first, Others next, Yourself last”. At first you might think this formula would lead to writing only theology, but I think the effect has been more subtle. Instead good Mennonites are invisible authors — that is, they write in a way that leads the reader to the subject or the theme; hopefully forgetting the writer entirely. In the language of literature, this is writing without a voice. This is something I was often chided for by my writing professor in college. “Put yourself in your writing,” she said. At the time I wrote in a journal,”.. I’m not comfortable with my own voice. I’m much more comfortable with trying to channel someone elses…”

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that when many prominent Mennonite authors such as Rudy Wiebe, Julia Kasdorf and Janet Kauffman first find their voice it critical of their Mennonite heritage and written for an audience outside the Mennonite church. In 2002 I interviewed Rudy Wiebe in the fall of 2002 and he talked about the experience of publishing his first book, Peace Shall Destroy Many. His reflections speak to both voice and audience:

It was published by the largest Book publisher in Canada, McClelland and Stewart. And so it received distribution all across the country. It was treated like a mass-market novel, as it was… So suddenly the Mennonites are seen as simply ordinary human beings having ordinary problems that people have: of conflict between themselves within the family, between Mennonites of the opposite sex… They’re not seen as perfectly living a faith commitment. They’re just human beings.

And this was a challenge for them why?

They, Mennonites, felt that they had maintained distance from ordinary Canadians and that distance was one of Christian behavior. And these type of things did not happen in Mennonite community. The leadership of the church at this point could not really read English well. The churches were still all high German. So that they were not used to reading a Modern novel. They read the Bible as Sacred Truth. Novels were lied stories, basically.

So what can we learn from Rudy? Clearly, voice is closely tied to audience. A writer cannot and does not exist in isolation as writing loses its meaning without an audience. Words written for one audience may play very differently for another. And one way of getting feedback from your audience is to upset them.

I shared this blog entry with a friend before publishing it and I’ll leave you with his response: “Can not having a voice be a form of insisting on wearing clothes all the time? The proper society/religious garb and the voice is always there–but it is also very coy and even manipulative.”

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