“Controller” has been my job title at three different places in the last fifteen years. It has very specific connotations in management accounting concerning the conservation and presentation an organization’s financial assets, but sometimes I think about how the word applies to me in broader terms.
A lot of my personal “work” during the last decade or so has been on my own issues related to control–accepting and backing off in areas where I don’t have much of it, applying it more wisely where I do, and trying to judge correctly just where a particular situation falls on the control spectrum. (It seems to come down to a spin on the Serenity Prayer, doesn’t it?) My writing is an expression and representation of myself. It’s subject to the same assessments, and I think it also illustrates them.
In writing, I have almost all the control over what to include in a particular piece and how to present it. I have lots of tools (and a few tricks) available to use, and I sort and filter and shuffle through them as I put the words together. Even when the piece is for a specific assignment, and I’m working with someone else’s subject or style requirements, I still get to make most of the choices about what to say and how to say it. I choose whether to be more or less personal or objective, more or less thoughtful or emotional, and what details to bring in or leave out.
I have almost none of the control over how a reader will respond to that piece. I know she’ll read my words through her own experience filter, but I can’t know what that means or how it will shape her reaction. I usually have some idea of the response I’d like to get–validation and praise, like back in my honor-student days, although now I hope for some understanding and empathy along with them–but all I can do is craft something that says what I mean, as well as it can, and hope it’s received in the way it’s intended. I know that sometimes it won’t be. When it’s not, I have to hope the reader can accept that the story I want to tell may not be the story she’s hoping to hear, but she can appreciate it anyway. (I’ve had to make that bargain as a reader plenty of times, so I don’t think it’s out of line to ask for that consideration as a writer.)
I’ve come to understand it like this: I can control the product. I can control some aspects of the process. But I can’t control how the market will respond to the product. Sometimes there’s no way to get it right, because sometimes there’s no “right” answer (which is one big difference between working with words and working with numbers).
I could maintain all the control if I never let my writing be seen by anyone else, but since I’ve chosen to do it in the public space of the internet, I’m apparently not going that route. When I let the words go off into that space, I lose my control over what happens to them next. I can’t control the response they’ll receive. I made my choices in the writing–the mood, the details, the style–with an intended effect, but the truth is that I can only know how they’d affect one specific reader: me. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only reader I want.
I equivocate there–saying I’m “pretty sure” rather than I “KNOW” I want others to read my words–because what I’ve written is a product and representation of myself. The response isn’t only to what I write–it’s to me, as I come across through what I write, even when I’m not writing about personal experiences. The books and movies and TV shows I choose to write about are revealing, even before getting into what I actually say about them. I judge people on what they read and watch and listen to, so I expect to be judged for the same–but I don’t control what that judgment will be. I can only hope it’s mostly favorable, most of the time.
I wrote this piece during the week we discussed “Your Relationship to Your Writing” in the Writers’ Workshop I’ve been participating in since September. We just wrapped up our fall session this week.
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