What if you wrote something for burning, or for burial? Perhaps it would be the most beautiful or important thing you ever wrote.
You would be your only reader, and you would read your words only once. Your text would be designed not to offer understanding or illumination but would simply reflect some truth about you, or some truth about the world that you know, or some truthful part of your imaginative life. For why would you choose to write anything other than the truth, if no one but you was ever to read it?
Your words would be spoken and yet not heard. Your work would be a signal emitted not so that it can be seen, but so that it can be made. This would be a light with no functional need to light the world around it: a light that shone for love of its own luminescence.
You would write something down, not so that it could be read, but for the relief of setting it down. Words written for the pleasure of calling them out. For the joyous shock of seeing a truth; of looking it in the eye without flinching.
If you knew your words would be destroyed, would the first thing that came to mind be a secret? Something shameful? Or, rather, something beautiful or proud which you nevertheless keep hidden? Perhaps your self-love itself. What if the thing you wrote was: “I am beautiful.” You yourself would be a light that shone for the joy of your own luminescence. If you buried your words, no one would know but you, that you had named yourself Radiant.
My love of literature is in part a reflection of my joy in the conversation between writer and reader – the call and response initiated by every good piece of work. The way a writer gives shape to the reader’s thoughts and then invites the reader to colour them in. The tender skill with which a writer pre-empts her reader’s emotions and asks the reader to offer her understanding in return. There is so much pleasure to be had, in the giving and receiving of meaning, in the way one person’s interpretation of another creates something new and beautiful, unexpected by both.
But writing with no reader is a gift we can all take for ourselves. I once wrote that every writer needs a reader, that “without the reader the writing conversation is incomplete, the creative circle broken”. But let’s set down the burden of others’ interpretations for a moment. Let’s not complete the circle – just make marks. Inarticulate your feelings, for there is no one to confuse with lack of grammar; there are no need for sentences; story; beginning, middle or end. You have no worry of offending another. You can even steal or borrow from others – they will never know! There is no requirement to entertain, no need to be recognisable. No need to be yourself, the self people believe you to be, the self you thought you were. You plan to burn these words. They will live very briefly.
You have possibly never done this before. Even my own unsent letters are stored in my attic, as though I were always the intended reader. In writing a diary, we carry the burden of our own future responses as we write – our journaling is freighted with our future need to make sense of things. In most of our writing we use subterfuge, camouflage: we dance with what others expect of us. What if that was unnecessary? Would we still use subterfuge if the only reader we hid from was our own self, in the moment of writing?
If there is no reader, there is no need to take a reader on a journey. And so, why not go straight to your destination? That is what this exercise forces you to do. To go straight to the truth: to find something you know already, to recognise it, acknowledge it, to call it out. And then to move on, enriched by the insight that you are self-reliant.
If you write for a living, who knows how your writing is altered, by your need to write for your readers, your ‘market’? Can you take a little taste of this freedom back to your everyday work?
What if you wrote something for burning, or for burial? Perhaps it would be the most beautiful or important thing you ever wrote. That’s what happened to me.