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Cormac McCarthy on Writing for One Audience

Cormac McCarthy on Writing for One Audience
Photo by Andrew Seaman / Unsplash

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. An acclaimed and award winning author of The Road, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men. Cormac, at eighty eight, is also launching two new releases this year. Rare for a man who only writes a book what feels like once a decade, and has published nothing since 2006.

McCarthy’s novels have been adapted for film and most of these adaptations are top-notch. I understand Cormac isn’t for everyone, and can be a tough sell for those wanting punctuation and dialogue tags, but still hold a special place in my literary canon and attention collection.

Despite all the books, movies, and awards, McCarthy is never in the limelight. He doesn’t talk about himself, never does book signings or tours, and rarely does interviews. Until a couple of high school students in Arizona were privileged to pick Cormac’s brain about his writing and craft.

The students asked about the style of McCarthy’s novels, and who he writes for. Here is what Cormac said:

CO and LW: One would think that, based on the style of your novels, that part of your purpose as a writer is to challenge your readers, and to expect more than the typical novelist. Is this intentional, or just the end result? Also, what kind of audience are you writing for?
CM: I’m not writing for a particular audience. The reader in mind is me. If someone else would write these books I could go play golf.

McCarty writes for an audience of one… himself. If you’ve followed my writing advice, I’m convinced the ultimate audience for the writer is themselves. Or as McCarthy says:

“The reader in mind is me.”

The second we worry about a group of nameless faces, or what marketing gurus suggests as the ideal target market for selling more books, we’ve lost.

Your ideal reader is you.

Cormac has written unique and lasting books because of taking his own advice. Any writer who thinks about what genre is hot, or who is going to read their stuff, or the latest marketing tactics, they’ll stop having fun and enjoying the process.

Most writers you talk to write because they enjoy it. They write because they have to. Writing is like breathing and regardless of how many eyes see our work… we keep showing up.

Mind you, writing is not all fun and games, and can be a slog like rolling a boulder up a hill in Croc’s. But the joy of writing is diminished when the marketing and business and publishing side creeps into our writing rooms.

When concern for audience trumps exploring and pushing boundaries and writing the stuff we want to read, we lose something. When we try to create something to fit neatly in a genre or a demographic, we lose the heart and soul and honesty and creativity of our work.

In the end, writers write. Those who get paid to write and understand the craft is not a path to fame and riches. McCarthy understood these truths when living in squalor before any of his books took off. I’m also not saying the desire for people to enjoy our work and read our words to pay bills is wrongheaded.

What I am saying is if we know writing and publishing isn’t a secure path for income, fame, or lunch at the cool kids table. Why not write for the joy, love, and what Flannery O’Conner said about writing to discover what we think about things.

Why not write for you?

Cormac McCarthy is onto to something. Maybe the path of writing success is less about momentary splashes of notoriety when hitting the zeitgeist of a popular genre or winning a Pulitzer.

Maybe the key to long term enjoyment and success of writing is throwing out the generic boundaries of success and writing for one audience.

Writing for yourself.