Message in a bottle

Message in a bottle

How to create something unique and personal that lasts and speaks to people, without conforming too much to what we think the audience will love? It’s the ultimate challenge for writers, and it’s the artist’s job to get into the very heart of that question.


In the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of his early short fiction, writer Kurt Vonnegut offered 8 tips for writing a good story. He writes, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” I relate to that statement because I believe the meaning of the work and the way it appeals to people is ultimately determined only by their personal interpretation.


However, tastes move on and the eagerness to please can count on little admiration. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “A true artist takes no notice whatsoever of the public. The public to him is non-existent.” And I think that’s true. In order to create something meaningful and unique, the counterintuitive but really necessary thing for writers is to detach from what is taken for granted and first find things you’re excited about writing. In the end, it’s the excitement that flows into the work and will make it stand out.


So in some ways, writing is like a message in a bottle you throw into the sea. You’ll never know where it arrives, how it will be perceived, and by whom. At its best, the writing is unique and sparks a conversation. At its worst, it has lost its creativity and merely functions as a colorless whole that appeals to no one, including yourself. Writing for an audience, instead of – to an audience means sacrificing the gift that’s distinctively yours.


In order to create something meaningful we must make pleasing ourselves – not others – a habit, so that if that message in a bottle is not going to be received or appreciated, it was still worth the ride.


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