Writers, We Gotta Slay This Bad Habit to Produce Our Most Profound Work and Find Our Audience

Here’s a trap that often snares us, writers. Instead of writing in our voice, we write to people’s expectations.

Post-it notes with words like "norms" and "expectation" on them
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

We give people what they expect, not what we can create. Other artists do it, too, including country music singer Mickey Guyton.

A recent New Yorker profile of Guyton relayed a conversation Guyton had a few years ago with her husband.

“I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’” Guyton says in the profile. “And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’”

We writers do that, too. We run from what makes us different and instead deliver writing that looks like what others expect from us. And we do that for a few reasons.

For one thing, the experts tell us to produce writing that meets others’ expectations. You know as well as I do, there’s plenty of writing guidance that tells us to understand our audience so we can publish what they want to read. 

That advice makes sense in a business context. If you’re writing a client’s blog or publishing on Medium only to earn money, then, sure, you should probably only write what your target audience wants to read.

Many of us writers, though, want to produce—dare I say it—art. Writing for us turns inside out our existences, from our memories to our present feelings. We write poems, stories, articles, novels, and stuff we can’t even categorize.

But we sometimes let others’ expectations dictate our art. We, like Mickey Guyton, run from what makes us different so we can produce writing we think others want to see.

This challenge is perhaps the most significant obstacle I face in my writing. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or disappoint those closest to me. 

And that’s a pitiful mindset for an artist.  

There’s a scene in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which an officer’s trying to help a private overcome his fear.

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead,” the lieutenant says. “The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.”

Writers need a similar mindset. We need to accept that we’re going to offend people. We’re not going to meet everyone’s expectations, and not everyone will like or approve of us or our writing. 

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can function as an artist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All art depends upon it.

That acceptance is not easy. I’ve struggled with it my whole artistic life, even today as a middle-aged man who’s finally committed to his art. And I can’t today tell you exactly how to overcome the compulsion to write to others’ expectations.

What I can do is let you know you’re not alone if this is your struggle. I can encourage you to fight the desire to write for others without first writing for yourself, and in doing so, I remind and support myself to do the same.

Write in your voice, from your perspective. Tap your deepest veins and give us what lies inside you. 

That is the art you want to produce, the art you need, for your sanity and enrichment, to create. That is the art we need you to make.