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The self in writing

  • When man looks into a mirror he sees himself. When man looks into a book, what does he see?
  • When man writes a book, who is he speaking to–to others or to himself?
  • Why do most people write anyway, when it isn’t a school curriculum,  a job requirement or something that provides a living?
  • Is writing  entirely an act of speaking to others? Is there any part of writing that involves listening as well?

I don’t suffer from hubris large enough to claim to have an answer to all of these questions as big and complex as they are. Speculation will only prove my amateurish ignorance within the writing community and so I’d better maintain a discreet silence here.

Writing and I

However, one thing I do know is that a lot of inexperienced writers, myself included,  view their own writing as self-expression and self-exposure of one kind or the other.

The simplest of these authors view writing as a way to gain recognition for themselves, be it to millions of readers (as a sort of alternate career dream), or to be valued by friends and family (to gain social stature) or to find value in themselves (as a means to find meaning in their lives). All worthy goals with a single underlying thread.

The self. The me. The I.

Even when writing is not a direct act of self expression, such as when we feel an obligation to discuss issues we are invested in, to disseminate information, to argue a point, or to express a point of view, or to just have fun, we can be self-obsessed.

Our own point of view, for the amateur writer, can still remain of paramount importance even as we discuss issues not directly related to ourselves. When it isn’t done as a professional requirement, even exposition or argument tend to become about self-expression, at best a display of a brilliant mind at work and at worst devolving into a kind of venting.

In the end all amateur writing, perhaps like this one, tend to come back to the self. To the inescapable I that most of us are obsessed with all day and all of us have no choice but to please and be married to for the rest of our lives.

This self obsession, or lack of it, is perhaps the most remarkable thing that distinguishes the amateur from the experienced writer.

Why is such self-obsession not a good idea for any writer but for new writers in particular?

To think about this question, I tried to think about another question.

Here it is.

Reading and I

Why do most people read?

Not professional readers (critics, teachers, indexers or writers) but the person on the street who, you hope, will one day come across your writing and spend a few moments on it. He will perhaps glance through your page as he puts a french fry in his mouth in between his accounting calculations or while waiting for the bus.

Why would such a person read your writing?

Would it be too much to presume that amateur readers read for the same reason that amateur writers write when it isn’t for a school exam or for a job presentation? Isn’t the amateur reader from the same subset of people in the world where the amateur writer also comes from i.e. literate people who find something of value in the simple act of reading and writing?

So perhaps we can ask the same questions of the reader as we did of the writer once again.

Do we read for self expression? To find meaning in our lives? To argue a point that is ours in our heads? To disseminate information from our own point of view by speaking along with a writer we are reading in our heads?

Aren’t we overjoyed when we can identify with a protagonist in a novel because she is just like us, perhaps just a little bit more larger than life? Don’t we like an editorial because it says just what we had wanted to say but only so much better? Don’t we love an article that we agree with, because, well, we agree with the article?

Even when the article rebuts everything we stand for, don’t we like it, hate it, remember it, share it and talk about it when it addresses our concerns one by one and argues against them just as though we were having a conversation with the author and he wasn’t talking to some person just over our shoulder or to himself? Don’t we love it when a piece makes us happy, sad, angry or is memorable because we can apply it to our lives?

In other words, is amateur reading simply a different way of returning to the old I? To the self?

Communication and I

Now here’s a problem when an amateur writer has dreams of reaching a large audience.  By virtue of it being large, the audience is bound to have a big fraction of amateur readers who will have neither time nor patience nor training nor will to get away from themselves to follow another’s point of view by reading closely.

So what happens?

The self-obsessed amateur writer repeatedly addresses the self-obsessed amateur reader and both speak at cross purposes looking to find the self in the other frustrating the experience of exchange until the writer is cast aside by the reader for one who can practice more empathy–put himself in another’s shoes and let the reader be herself rather than another.

Call me cynical if you like but new writers need to move from the I to the you in order to be read at all.

Sure there are great writers who talk about themselves all the time. Sure it is fascinating to watch their minds at work. But when I think about why I want to read them, I realize that they successfully made their I perspective into my perspective, me into you and you into me.

In other words, they successfully brought their point of view and made it my own sufficiently enough to conflate the me and the you so I the writer and you the reader became one and the same for the rest of my reading experience when we read together.

Moreover, if it was a great book, through the process of reading, I the reader changed a bit into you the writer through this act of reading. Perhaps the book changed for me too. If I read the book again, it would never be the same . If I liked the book enough, I’d come back to it again and again and find something new and different every time.

So for new writers, it is a good idea to invest a lot in understanding other people, to cultivate some distance between one’s own ideas and beliefs and one’s own self and not see writing as merely a forum for expression of one’s own ideas.

It’s easy to look into the mirror and remain fascinated, especially if one sees something there one likes. It is a different skill to see others there as oneself, to know them as oneself, speak as they would speak, respond as they would respond and have a conversation with the person in the mirror.

 

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21 thoughts on “The self in writing”

  1. This post encapsulates a lot of the unformed ideas in my head. In fact, one of the main reasons I read is to give my own ideas a shape, maybe to validate, to crystallize perhaps or just to bring an opposing view and by doing so help me marshal my own thinking.

    I always considered myself to have a pretty good command over the English sentence. When the day job ceased be it was a golden opportunity (or so I thought) to write the book I’ve always wanted to write and thought I could if I had the time.

    Two years later, I realise I’m not quite a writer, that control over grammar and sentence construction is not enough. That’s why my blog tagline says “Learning to write rightly”.

    And BottledWorder, I read your blog because you so clearly capture and communicate the lesson. Thanks!

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  2. Reading on another blog about writing memoirs, I return to your post, which I read the day you published it.
    I still share Matthew’s (above) opinion.
    Yet I realize that in the best pieces of literature or memoirs, we forget the “I” part of the writer and instead find ourselves so immersed that we identify with the main character of the novel or meet emotionally the memoirist in her/his journey.
    So it is probably true that the more experienced and skilled we are, the more able we are to dig inside us to provide universal feelings, without talking obnoxioulsy about us.
    Another great post, Bottleworder.

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    1. There’s no greater validation for a writer’s writing than the knowledge that someone else spent a minute thinking about her ideas. Thank you! Hope to have more exchanges like this.

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  3. Thank you for this post. I originally just ‘liked’ it. I have since ruminated and now decided to join the conversation. It came at the right time and spoke to me as an amateur writer and reader; as an awkward conblogversationalist. It came at that time when I was questioning my own ‘purpose’ in this space. What ‘i’ wanted from it. What ‘i’ needed from it. What ‘it’ actually was.I suspect this questioning will continue and it is heartening to read your post and the conversations that have followed; that these kinds of thoughts and ruminations are shared by other. So once again thank you.

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  4. Fascinating piece, and the comments too.

    One of the joys of moving from a life-time of journalism was being able to use the word ‘I,’and have an opinion, after a life-time of so called objective reporting in the third person. I know what you mean about the self obsession, and I agonise before pressing ‘ publlsh’ every time… for that very reason.

    At the same time, I always enjoy personal opinion pieces in a newspaper or journal, they feel so much juicier than
    straight reporting !!

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    1. Absolutely! I read your blog and that has the healthy kind of I where you recreate places and nature for others. I find my I in your I and that’s the best kind of communication possible. It isn’t the obsessive I.

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  5. I’ve always thought of reading as a way to expand my world, to learn about and appreciate people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. In our everyday lives, we only talk with a handful of people each day, and there are so many things they don’t tell us. In a work of fiction, the reader is given a window into the lives of a variety of characters. And though we may need to have something in common with a character in order to empathize with him, we may in most ways be quite different.

    Last week I tried to explain in a blog post why I write. I only scratched the surface. I mentioned my parents who made things–my dad, a carpenter; my mom, a seamstress–and said that I also wanted to create something. I wrote of wanting to dig deeper and to catch hold of experiences that pass us by all too quickly.

    So far, my blog is only seven months old, so I’m still finding out what blogging means. I try to choose topics that entertain and enlighten. But does writing a blog as an amateur mean I’m self-obsessed? Oh, dear! I hope not.

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    1. A very interesting point of view. A blog is a special genre that is *supposed* to be about oneself. So how does some of my points above apply, if at all? The same questions would apply about the autobiography, diary and other genres where people tell their own stories. That could warrant another post. Thanks for a great response.

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  6. These are good points to keep in mind. I do ask myself when I write something, “Why would anyone want to read this?” , because I do not intend for my bog to be my personal diary. Yet I do occasionally write the occasional self indulgent post, which may not be appreciated except by those who know me the best. Frankly, I go through the same process every time i start to write something_ how much of myself to include, and how much I am including without even being aware of it.

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  7. Interesting questions. I think communication is a basic desire in everyone. We write notes, letters, essays, books to let others know how we are feeling or doing and require that they respond so we know what is going on in their lives. People who do not communicate, either verbally or through the written word, isolate themselves from society.

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  8. I’m a theoretician and philosopher at heart.

    For a person like me, who has poor knowledge aggregation skills in a knowledge aggregation society, Creative Writing allows me a hobby that relies almost entirely (if not completely) on Analysis, Theorization, Extrapolation, Recreation, and Innovation: intelligence-based skills that I both take comfort in and enjoy utilizing.

    Fictional worlds are the ultimate moral playground; and a place where my curse of super-empathy changes into a blessing.

    My motives probably fall within the minority of reasons for writing, but it’s an alternative perspective to consider: a match of skill possession to skill utilization. I’m not quite sure how I’d factor into your theory considering I write a lot, but rarely read others’ literature.

    I think on the larger scale, ignoring outliers like myself, you’re exactly correct with the idea that the reader searches for self in literature, and that writers ultimately need to accommodate that desire to become professional.

    Fantastic read. Thanks for writing it :).

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  9. Interesting thoughts with much food for thought, BW. Thanks for this :) My immediate thoughts….By definition, writing in the hopes of being read is as much an act of hubris as one of faith. I do believe one of several elements that lifts an inexperienced, or amateur writer out of the slush is the ability to keep the concept of the piece/story being read as he or she is writing, tapping into self while letting go of the ego, if that makes any sense.

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