September 12, 2017

"Nothing like listening to yourself talk, say" -Lenny Shepherd in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

I recently came across a piece of self reflective writing by a friend of mine. She wanted to share her relationship to writing and how it has evolved as she's transitioned from university to working adulthood, and she started off the piece with "I grew up reading so much that I was nicknamed "the bookworm" in my church". The sentiments and romanticism of her writing, while genuine enough, served up a bland piece of nervous writing that reeks of anxiety and a desperation to be understood. When I read this kind of nervous writing, I picture a ____, hands jittering as they anxiously await the judgment call of someone else that will ultimately decide their fate. I can almost see the neurosis with which they wrote and unveiled their work for all to see, without procuring the stomach to digest the critiques that are bound to come their way. My dear friend, though sincere in her efforts, made the mistake of not trusting her audience, and thus mistrusting her own writing as true and adequate. In an effort to make her sentiments plain--sentiments that she mistakenly believed were unique to her lived experience--she forgot that her audience was not a blank wall against which writing simply sticks, but made up of real human beings, in the flesh, that bring to her work their own humanity. That they possess their own philosophies that if you write honestly and courageously, your words will suffice to echo, add to, or at the very least, brush up against. Her writing became cheap, an advertisement for herself, rather than an earnest endeavour to connect and communicate. 

An author's voice, the elusive quality in one's writing that is much raved about but rarely ever clearly defined,  is what gives life to stories, pumps drama and fancy into the bland landscapes that we pass by in our own lives without a second thought. 

Yet, even without a clear definition of what an artist's 'voice' is, we as readers can recognize when it is present. Many readers' relationship to good writing is gastronomical. We all know when we've consumed something good and wholesome, and when something is rancid, hollow, or superficial. But if someone were to thrust us into the kitchen and demand we whip up a meal, most of us would be at a loss. Others' senses are more keen and well honed over time than others, and we fittingly have coined this skill "good taste". But being able to recognize good art and being able to produce good art are two entirely different processes. 

It's the most backwards thing. Francis Ford Coppola, when interviewed on his creative process during the shooting of Apocalypse Now, answered, "Nothing is as terrible as a pretentious movie, I mean, a movie that aspires for something terrific and doesn't pull it off. It's shit. It's scum--and everyone will walk on it as such. And that's why poor filmmakers, in a way, that's their greatest horror--is to be pretentious. So here you are, on one hand, trying to aspire to really do something and on the other hand, you're not allowed to be pretentious."

All too familiar with setting out with your heart on your sleeve only to end up with a knockoff product that only echoes greater works, rather than joining them. 

And yet, people seem to do it. Young people all over America are doing it, right now. Lena Dunham and the self-reflective Girls held up an unsettling mirror to privileged, narcissistic millennials by which they could uncomfortably view their own faults. SZA did it with her first album, CTRL, which, despite its musical downfalls, bares with sincerity all the self-doubt, anxiety, and naiveté of a "20 something" artist hoping to somehow make a mark on this world that seems ready to swallow her up. The heartbreaking fourth season of Netflix original series Bojack Horseman painted a honest, poignant portrait of the realities of depression, asexuality, politics, and broken family life, while riddling it full of animal puns ("This cow likes getting tipped"). 

I believe that young artists, including myself, that are guilty of this kind of self-indulgent writing do so for a number of reasons. The first and foremost being that we are emerging writers, meaning that we are bad writers. We are certainly better than most at the craft, and probably have a genuine love of literature, but we have yet to hone the skills and navigate the murky creative waters to produce anything that is pure and honest and true. The following and most critical reason is that we don't know why we are writing, and therefore end up producing hazy, unfocused musings that serve only ourselves and our egos. 

So why do we write? What message or story of ours is so important, so crucial that it be told, that it calls for such a painstaking medium? I will not be so bombast to presume that I can proclaim what is or should be a good reason to write. But I will assert that the reason to write must be greater and more compelling than the simple fact that one has read good writing and seeks to "touch others in the way that I've been touched" or "express myself". My friend, the same friend who wrote the line about being dubbed a bookworm, writes, "personal writing is truly a reflection of the soul". But who is to say that one's soul is worth reflecting? Should all reflections of the soul be considered good writing? Or are we to concede that writing need not be good so long as it serves the purpose of self expression? It is false and foolish to assume that one's soul is worthy of being publicly expressed. If personal reflection is the sole end of writing, then a diary, not literature, will suffice. For a writer to uncover one's 'voice' and purge one's writing of all self serving, he or she must answer the question of what it is they want to say and why it is imperative that it be read by other people.

And one can consider his or herself as part of that other people. Many a artist has said simply, "I write what I want to see". Often, our creative impulses come because we seek to create something that hasn't yet been created but ache to see come to life. But even in this case, a writer must approach themselves as an audience, a entity separate from themselves as the creator. And the answer to the question becomes, why is this imperative that it be made and read by an audience that is me? What do I, as a reader, have to gain from reading this piece? And that must be the question that guides a writer in the process of writing to share a valuable piece of information, rather than bolstering oneself and one's own lived experience.

Simply, how does one relinquish self-indulgent writing, and reach that nirvana of good art?