lettermanI hadn’t watched David Letterman’s The Late Show in many years. For one thing, that was after my bedtime. And for the last few years, we haven’t had any cable TV in our home. But I was a regular viewer of the clips and segments the show made available online and, before all that, grew up watching Dave as he trotted out Stupid Pet/Human Tricks and everything else that was part of his repertoire. There was Carson, there was Letterman. That’s how the world worked. And when it came to decide between Leno or Dave…well…there wasn’t really a choice. I’d follow that gap-toothed rebel anywhere.

The tributes from comedians flowed in the months, days and weeks leading up to his final show, most of which made it clear he either inspired them when they were watching his early show or he gave them a big break when they were starting out. But while I’m not a comedian, Dave inspired me in his own way.

They say that finding success as a writer – or any sort of creative type – comes from knowing your audience. What I saw every night when I watched Letterman was that knew exactly who his audience was: Himself. He was going to make himself chuckle, and if anyone else joined him, well that was just gravy. But he was going to do the show, tell the jokes, share the emotional soliloquy (such as after his heart surgery or after the attacks of 9/11) that resonated with him. His priority was to be true to his own voice and seemed, even to me at 12 or 13 years old, to be willing to live or die by that standard. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that his most celebrated recurring guest is Bill Murray, the patron saint of “This makes sense in my own head.”

As I’ve grown as a writer – and even an occasional editor – that lesson has been ingrained in me to the point where it’s part of my core software. A particular turn of phrase will make me laugh out loud or grin at its cleverness and that in and of itself is enough for me to decide to yeah, leave it in, even if I’m the only one who gets the gag. And when I’m editing other people I’m very sensitive to not doing anything to interfere with their voice.

So I write for myself. At times I’ll write something and think “Oh, X person is going to love this” and it’s rewarding when I see that exact person Retweet or comment or in some other way engage and acknowledge the piece. And I can tell you there are vast swaths of posts I’ve written that I never want to see again and when I look back at them I think “I was trying too hard to be popular.” They fall flat. There’s no soul to them. There’s no spirit.

There’s a time and a place for writing for an audience, I know this and can do that pretty well. But in the work I’m most proud of, the stuff I feel still resonates and which I’d want to highlight, that’s all written for me, because it’s what I needed to say and shows me thinking out loud for better or for worse.

Thanks, Dave, for showing a young aspiring writer that the only audience that really mattered was the one working at the keyboard.