Audience Awareness (and the Neurotic Author)

On Saturday, I braved the horrible wet, cold darkness of December in Seattle to go to a concert. The band playing, Garage Voice, are some of my good friends, amazing musicians, and all around awesome guys. They've also been extremely supportive of my writing, and it was so great to tell them I got a book deal because they've been rooting for me for a long time. 

The venue was a rectangular, black-painted basement bar, a performing area backdropped with a plain orange curtain, and a stage about six inches above where the audience stood. 

Photo by the awesomesauce Vanja Horonic

The music was great, and the guys worked their tails off. I've never really thought before how much of an athletic activity performing music is. 

It also got me thinking about the ways people enjoy things. It seemed everybody was experiencing the performance in a different way. For example, there were:

-the people who stood completely still
-the people who swayed a little
-the people who took pictures
-the people who were so excited, they were practically dancing and would get a little too enthusiastic and start head-banging at the wrong moments
-the people who kept checking their texts during the songs
-the bartender who was facing the other way, scrolling through Twitter on his phone 
-the crazy people trying to mosh for no reason
-the couple sitting at a table talking loudly the entire time and generally being annoying 
-and I'm pretty sure there was a critic there from one of the local Seattle papers

There are probably equivalents of these people in readers. Enthusiastic readers who write fan fiction and create fan art, readers who only read casually, readers who are also reviewers, readers who normally read some other genre, readers who are only reading the book because they're friends with the writer. When you write, you feel like you have the readers inside your head, and you inevitably try to anticipate how different people will view what you write. This can cause anxiety and pressure like whoa (for instance, one of the settings in my book, MINNOW, is a religious commune and, inevitably, one of the themes is how young people grapple with religion. While writing, I was constantly aware of the potential to offend readers--religious, atheist, agnostic readers alike). But, it's really rare to have the reader right there in front of you reacting to what you've written. 

I think there's a huge lesson to be learned in how Garage Voice handled the different reactions, which is to say how they didn't handle them. Even though the audience was only feet from them, through the entire performance the guys did such a great job of acting totally oblivious to how the audience was processing the music. At one point, the couple in the back got really loud, but Garage Voice was just focused on the performance. If they had thrown their instruments down and yelled at the couple, or if they had tried to cater to the couple in order to get them more engaged ("Oh, you like R&B/polka/death metal fusion? OK, we can do that!"), it would've ruined the entire thing. As a writer, trying to cater to every reader's tastes would be just as futile and costly to the final product. 

The audience is obviously hugely important, but at a certain point, there's nothing to be gained from freaking out over how others are reacting to your work. Ultimately, you just gotta put your head down and do it for yourself and the fans who connect to it.