Gertrude Stein says somewhere that she writes "for myself and strangers."
I need something more than that, I think.
Writing simply for myself--an essay, for example, written solely to advance my career--feels a bit unsatisfying, although now that I know the promotion demands it, I'll write a few this way. They won't be entirely "for myself" now, after all, but for my family, just as the pieces I wrote before tenure were. (Each essay, each book, had a job to do, then. Once I had tenure, that motivation vanished, and I flailed about for a very long time before finding something more that I cared enough to write.)
Writing for strangers? I've never done it. In theory I find it an intriguing idea: to write about something that I think is worth knowing, without any particular audience in mind. In practice, though, I don't think I'd be motivated to get the job done.
What I like, in the end, is writing for--and editing for, and organizing for--someone or something or some group of people that I actually care about.
The love poetry book wasn't just to get me tenure: it was everything I knew about love at the time, a portrait, however distanced, of the first years of my marriage. The Jewish American poetry book grew out of a couple of friendships; so did the Ron Johnson book, although that was also for Ron himself, a sweet man and a lovely poet, and for my father, who wanted me to finish it, so I did, eventually.
The Parnassus pieces? As the years have gone by, they've often been written for Herb, the editor there, who had faith in me across years of writer's block. The one about poets in novels was written to advance the romance project, in gratitude to the RWA for their support; my latest, about Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Darwish (and Samih al-Qasim) grew out of my meeting Taha years ago in Chicago, and has turned into a chance to spread the word to colleagues (at DePaul and in the Jewish community) about some books that matter, deeply, to me.
As I look ahead, the projects that draw me most keenly are the ones that I connect to groups of friends and colleagues, and nowadays that mostly means friends and colleagues in Romancelandia, where they abound. What I need to find, alongside these, are some poetry projects that I connect with specific readers (you know who you are) or poets for whom I feel the same personal affection I did for Ron. As I type this, I realize: this is one reason I've never tried to gather my stray essays into a collection, or hammer them into a monograph. The question that pops into my mind ("Who'd read it?") isn't a rhetorical one or a critique of the academic publishing industry. It's a practical one: whom among my friends, my colleagues, my family, would that book be for?
As I say, it may be that the pressure of the promotion will change these dynamics. Maybe I'll start churning out copy like a text machine (get on up!), simply to put those notches in my CV. Knowing this about myself, though, I suspect that I'm better off using this insight to sort out priorities. The pieces that aren't "for myself and strangers" are the ones I'll be most motivated to write, to finish, to publish, and with limited time, I might as well start there.