When I sit down to write, I haven’t thought about an audience. Often I feel more like an amanuensis, copying down whatever the universe commands. The universe commands much, by the way. You might call it inspiration—divine or otherwise. I have not spent much time trying to figure out “my voice,” as much as I have trying to listen keenly to what comes my way.

That changed recently, and I actually began to think about delighting a reader. I began a writing project with one particular reader in mind, and I sought to please that reader. This shift helped me to shift how I wrote. I no longer found myself struggling to listen for some voice that came from another place. To be honest, I still feel that my voice is only partly my own, I still rely on inspiration. But now, I realize that thinking about a reader was something that I had been missing. For years.

In part, and a big part, I worry less about getting the inspiration right. That has been a weighty burden. What if I misplaced word and intent? What if I failed to capture the muse’s song? Now, all I need to do is surprise, and somehow, please a reader. That is so much easier. I know enough about my reader that I can throw in some reference that the reader will appreciate. Or add some detail culled from our common experience.

As I have written more, I have focused less on that particular reader—for whatever reason—and began to accept that all along the muse, my muse, did not want me to repeat a song. My muse wanted me to sing back. All this time, my muse had been aching for surprise and delight. How did I not know this?

One of my first teachers, Ron Hansen, ends his spectacular novel Mariette in Ecstasy with Mariette’s message from her muse (who just happens to be God). The message is, “Surprise me.” I read that years and years ago, and only now has the lesson begun to take hold. How I wish I had stumbled into that realization 20 years ago. But better now, late as it is, than not at all.

And so, now, finally, I write to the surprise. And it comes. Over and over.