Writers write because they have seen something in the world around them, and they want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do we writers spend so much of our writing time thinking about ourselves?
You’re there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you’re thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you’re going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you’ll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you’ve written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you’ve ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you’ve written plenty of good pieces–brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you’ve already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can’t write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you’ll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you’re the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.
Just in the writing of this little post, I have experienced this self-absorption in many forms. I was going to knock it out and post it last Wednesday. Wednesday came, then Friday, and I still hadn’t sat down to write it. Monday rolled around–a fresh start. But since my post was overdue, I would need to make it extra-brilliant–more brilliant than I felt I was up for…
Saint Augustine (among others) spoke of sin as incurvatus in se–a curving in on the self. This truth is nowhere more evident than in the neuroses and dysfunctions that so often accompany the act of writing. Self-absorption, self-consciousness, self-promotion, self-loathing, self-justification, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement–incurvatus in se.
Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis evoked the idea of incurvatus in se as he explained why Satan rebelled against God and lost his place in heaven: “in the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Satan] could think of nothing more interesting than his own prestige.” I write because I live in a world that is full of wonders and I count it a privilege to point out a few of those wonders to a few of the people I share this world with. I write because I live in a world that’s a whole lot more interesting than my own prestige. And yet I am forever stalling out because instead of looking outward at this astonishing world, I look inward. Instead of wondering at the world, I wonder what the world is going to think of me.
So here’s my challenge to you, my writerly friend: be less introspective. Look outward at the world and at your reader, and leave yourself out of it. See what you see, and then write it down.
[Editor’s note: Jonathan has an online class starting May 15 where I know he’ll have lots more writing advice to hand out. It’s called Writing with Flannery O’Connor, and you can register by clicking here. In June he’ll be offering an online class called Writing Close to the Earth.]
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.