The Ruricolist is now available in print.


All writing has a sense of audience. The sense may be latent or explicit, attenuated or definite, but it is always there. The more explicit and definite this sense, the fewer the choices the writer must make, and the better-informed those choices are. To have a public is to have it easy. A circle of the likeminded, something the writer can be a member of, is also helpful. But the audience does not have to be real to be sensed. Just to have something to prove and someone to prove it to – whether or not they are paying attention – is a great help. Even the voice in the wilderness has the wicked world to harangue.

The writers of the Dark Ages read the classical authors and tried to do what they did; but they lacked the classical audience. Their work has a feral, furtive quality. No matter how they tried – and some of them were brilliant, had great minds – something was always missing, always off-key. You do not know their names because their work has little value in itself. The interest it keeps is in tokening what might been – without the thrall of priestcraft, without the isolation of monkhood. I think of them often, and with sympathy.

Still, failing all others, there is a true audience, the true one because it is the only inevitable one – yourself, plus time. The hardest and therefore the worthiest thing to write is the thing you can reread – now, later, ten years later – without embarrassment or frustration.

Of course you hope to improve, and improving to see flaws that were invisible to you before. But the visible flaws are enough. The audience you write for may not notice your omissions and exaggerations. You may get them on your side. They may forgive you for being glib or hasty. You may learn the tone of their voices so well that in your head you can hear them defending you even as you cut the corner. Audience excuses a lower standard. But just because you can write does not mean you should. You will never stop seeing the flaws. They will always be there; they will accuse you forever. Anticipating your own retrospect is the only antidote to so attractive a complacency.

I built a shed over the summer. It is easily the largest thing I have ever built. Naturally I made mistakes, and naturally I learned from them. Having built one shed, I could build a much better one. But a shed is a physical object. Because I am not willing to waste the materials I used, because it works well enough that I cannot justify the effort and expense to replace it, I am stuck with all its crooks and gaps and rough edges.

As a writer you do not have to compromise. You can learn by doing and apply the lessons to what you have done, without losing anything. Style is only the quality obtained by this adaptation of means and ends. The vaunted ability to write without reading, to get it right the first time and let it go, to write altogether efferently, to remove yourself from your audience: this is nothing to be proud of; this is missing the point.

True, self-criticism is a dangerous habit. You know where all the knives are in, and how to twist them. And there is a deadness to self-inspection that deceives. The worst you will ever look is to yourself in the mirror. But I am not talking about criticism. There is always something to criticize, something to change. I am talking about recognition and responsibility: about being able to say, without hesitation or qualification: “Yes, that is mine.”