On Self-Indulgence

Let's see, friends, if I can write about this topic without feeling, well, self-indulgent.

Of all the bugbears and boogeymen I carry around as a writer, there is, I think, none that plagues me so much as my terrible worry that my writing will wallow in its own conceits. You know (some of you at least) what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the writing you produce that is more about itself than it is about communicating with another human being. Those words you set down that are more about getting something urgent off your chest than constructing them in a way that makes sense beyond the tip of your nose. I'm talking about writing that goes on and on and on, just because it can; writing that doesn't respect the sense and memory of the reader; and writing that, if anyone else had written it, you'd throw against the wall with impatience, possibly with real disgust. Writing that lacks a certain self-awareness. A certain proportion. Writing that is the rough equivalent of spending an hour longer than you need to at the grave of Anna Nicole Smith.

(Please tell me that you also produce writing like this. Don't leave me alone out here, hanging.)

Now, here is the interesting thing: now that I've started this, this is not, really, a post about reining in disproportion. It is about over-reacting. It is about withholding. It is about not allowing yourself to take your writing as far as it can and should go, because you fear to overdo-it. It is about the fear of being self-indulgent.

(Oh good heavens, woman, I hear you saying. Make up your mind.)


At one point in my life as a writer--this was somewhere in the middle of my career--I became so worried that I might appear to readers like an ice cream truck that parks in front of your house and plays wheedling music all night long--come on, come out, come look at me, I'm so yummy yummy yummy!--that my draft manuscripts became . . . thin. Perhaps some of you know what I mean. Now I'm talking about writing that takes the austere road rather than the risky one. Writing that you try to tell yourself is "clean" and "spare" when what it really is is anorexic. Writing that, in the honest attempt not to abuse your reader, loses all sense of generosity toward her.

Writing that practices a kind of self-abnegation, which is the flip-side of self-indulgence.

At some point in the life of every manuscript of mine, I still wrestle with this odd quandary.

Is it art to give in to lavish conceit, or is art born of humility?

Should I be a stringent editor of the self, or a tolerant one?

It's all very well to say find the right proportion, or hire a good editor, but now try to imagine a circumspect The Sound and the Fury, or Gertrude Stein saying, "Oh dear, Alice, have I put one too many theres there?"

I find it helpful, now and then, to look at pictures of Gertrude.

How that woman took up space! But you would never call her fat.



This is a terrific post on a very real challenge. I'm often guilty of excessiveness, elegant variant, and the tendency to fall in love with one of my own clever turns of phrase. I'm an extravagant writer, burying the page in whatever "good stuff" pours out and deliberately producing with a very loose rein - because that's when I come up with my most creative stuff.

Thank heavens I have this ruthless internal editor to help me prune the excesses in subsequent sessions. These are definitely two different roles for my brain, and I've learned to compartmentalize them.

I also rely upon important allies, such as my brilliant critique partners, agent, and editors to tell me when the writing's getting in the way of the storytelling. But for all that, the balance continues to be a real challenge, one that I work on page by page.

Thanks so much for sharing both sides, Mylene.
jeanna Thornton said…
Oh, I do not want to be a *lush looser* , my term for myself when I blubber too much for too little gained! I love how BTO goes deeply into the writer and expels the raw tissue...EXCELLENT post!
Joni Rodgers said…
What a wise and fabulous woman you are, Mylène.
Raw tissue, indeed, Jeanna. And thanks, Mylene. I've been dealing with this to some degree myself, lately. I think this issue is especially hard for those of us with a penchant for lyrical writing, because it's so tough to know whether what we're writing is indeed lovely, or whether we're falling too in love with our own cadence.
Mylène said…
Well considering I pulled this post down (Colleen caught me at it) for being (as I thought) too obscurely about my own experience, it's nice to come here late in the day and see that it was readable. Thanks, my friends. Oh my. Let us be lush. Let us prune. Let us be raw. But most of all, let's love what we do and how seriously, oh how seriously, we take it.

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