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.
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