Writing is a lonely art. We spend hours at the keyboard, confronted by blank pages and surrounded by empty coffee cups, putting together words, sentences, paragraphs that we hope will impress and inspire our audiences.
But what about us, the writers? Do we inspire ourselves? Are we writing from the heart, words that we would want to read?
I started practising my writing on the road, as a journal keeper and author of prolific snail-mail letters to family at home. It was easy writing, because my audience was small and familiar. Just me and my family.
But I want to tell you a story about writing that comes from my college days. And yes, college papers are a valid part of the practice that makes us better.
When I was studying for my undergrad degree, the Internet was still in its infancy. We didn’t have the luxury of endless digital resources, superfast search engines or blogs where ordinary people shared their knowledge and views on life. Research was still very much something that was done in college libraries late at night or on weekends.
In the third year of my degree, I was given an assignment that required interviewing a company executive about his or her views on leadership and managing change. As the deadline for submission grew ever closer, I headed for a state of panic. You know that feeling when assignments are due and you have nothing to show, other than a rising coffee habit and a penchant for sitting in other people’s dorm rooms drinking it.
I had never met a company executive, nor could I say that any of them were ever likely to move in the same circles as me, a lowly student and part-time hotel room cleaner.
What I did have, though, was a computer and an email address. So I went searching online for a company that had a manager who had published an article on anything remotely related to leadership and organizational change.
It wasn’t hard to choose one. There weren’t that many willing to put their email addresses out there for anyone to see. But I did find one. So I emailed him, commented favourably on his published article, told him about my predicament and how I thought he might be able to help.
To my great surprise, he agreed to help me, but not before he had contacted my university to check that I was indeed a student enrolled at that institution. I followed up with my list of questions and he emailed me back with his responses inserted into the spaces between. I was ecstatic, saved at the eleventh hour.
I carefully cut and pasted my questions and his answers into my essay, added a few words of explanation and analysis and printed it out ready to submit. Voila!
But I couldn’t help feeling that I’d cheated somehow. In the end, it all seemed too easy. After all, I’d hardly written anything myself. It was all from the pen of my phantom manager, whom I had never even met.
My paper came back a couple of weeks later with the following grade – High Distinction! The professor waxed lyrical about my ingenuity, innovation and ability to think outside the square. My head swelled with pride in my obvious genius. Yeah, right.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was in the middle of another unit in the same degree course. By this time Lotus Notes had come on the scene and the university had set us all up with access so that we could contact and collaborate with other students.
Late one night in an online chat room, I was bemoaning the fact that I had no idea what to do for an upcoming assignment. My fellow students were offering suggestions. Then one of them started telling a story that had been related to her in a face to face tutorial group on campus, a story of how a student in another unit had used the Internet and email to contact an expert to get research material for an assignment. Slowly it dawned on me – she was talking about me! I was being talked about in the hallowed halls of the university as a shining example of resourcefulness and creative thinking.
I’m telling you this because it underpins an important and little-known fact about the work we create as writers, artists, poets. All creatives, really.
You never know how something you have written is going to affect others. You may never even know that it has. When I wrote that university assignment, I never thought about what might happen to it. Hell, all I cared about was getting it done. I didn’t write it for anyone other than my professor. And myself.
And that’s what is so great about it. An audience of one, okay two, became a vehicle of inspiration for many.
The point I am making is this, you should be writing for yourself first. If it moves others, great. If you are lucky enough to find out that it has helped someone else, even greater.
Who are you writing for? Who do you have in mind when you sit at the keyboard? Do you have an audience of one? Have you heard a story about how your writing has helped or inspired someone?
Tell me your story, and let’s have a conversation about it.
This article was originally published on www.medium.com in May 2016