Approval Seekers


It was my freshman year of college and I’d been assigned my first real academic reading: a slender volume laying out one historian’s theory that the invention of the stirrup was responsible for the end of the dark ages. Sounded interesting enough. Then I cracked the book. What I read was in English, but most of the sentences didn’t make sense to me. Or, they did make sense if I could follow them from beginning to end without getting lost in thickets of academic jargon. It was as if the author believed his job was to find the most complex way to express the simplest idea.

The disciplined young writer in me was bugged – no, offended. I marched down to my professor, whom I liked very much, and told him the book was unreadable. “Listen to this,” I said. “You tell me what this means.” I read aloud the longest, densest, most jargonized sentence I could find. Once I’d finished, my professor nodded and began to translate what I’d read into plain, mono-syllabic, Midwestern English.

“Fine,” I said. “I get it. So why didn’t he just say that? What’s with all this other crap?”

“I suppose it could have been a little clearer,” he allowed.  

I never finished the book. In retrospect, I was being too hard on its author. He was only trying to please his audience, which was almost certainly other academics. I’m reminded of what can happen in certain writing groups, where members develop an agreed-upon aesthetic, and soon each writer, if they’re not sharing their work elsewhere, finds him or herself writing to please the group. Approval, no matter from whom, can be a powerful motivator.

Which is why it can be so useful when you don’t know much about your audience. I assume most people reading this are writers, but I don’t know how old you are, or where you live, or what you believe in, or who you vote for, or even what you write. Some of you write romance, and some of you write screenplays, and some of you write memoir. Some of you have published many books and some of you are yet to publish anything.

None of that matters. All that matters is that you have a story to tell. I like to believe that’s enough for me a find a line between you and me I can follow. The line may not always be as direct as it could be, and I know what I write might not make sense to you sometimes. It might even sound like a lot of spiritual, writerly jargon. It can happen. But let’s neither of us be fooled into believing we are so different, that we aren’t both seeking our own stories, our own acceptance, our own approval.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.