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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.


7 Comment count
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Ok Ok! You..

Okay, now I've got it off my chest you are not alone here! One thought though is that if you feel what you write then I think others will too. Just like tasting a good meal and wishing others to have a bite.

Warm Regards


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Hi Leslie

Ah-ha, I knew I wouldn't be alone for long! Thanks for reading and indulging. We must feel, yes. We must feel, way down.--M

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I have to admit..

Okay Mylene,
Truth be told I like taking the risk, if you don't how would you know. I think people would always have an opinion one way or the other..I like giving them a chance to decide...


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This is wonderful, Mylene.

This is wonderful, Mylene. You have such a way of inspiring and reminding us of such important lessons. You remind us to give ourselves permission. Yes, it makes perfect sense. If we can't get it all out and we're always getting in our way from the start, our writing will fall flat and the "feeling" that you and Leslie mention won't even have a chance to surface. These days I keep seeing the yin-yang symbol in my mind's eye--balance. A good degree of balance seems to hold it all together. Hmm... Thanks for making me think about it! I have some more thinking to do.

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Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks

I think you just read our hearts and spoke for us. I know sometimes I wonder if I'm over-doing it, and hold back. Other times, I let it all out, then wonder if I'm overdoing it.

I was looking for a diamond earring. It was fairly small and a gift from my son. I had plowed through my jewelry box, then I began removing a piece at a time; finally I dumped the whole thing out and spread all the earrings, bracelets, necklaces, chains, and pearls into a broad circle, and in the middle - was my little diamond earring.

Sometimes, we don't know what we have until we pour it all out.

Thank you, Mylene. I so appreciate your writing.

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Hi Rebecca

Hi Rebecca, great to see you! Love your new photo. And you're right: get it out, get out of the way, get in over your head, grow. And THEN balance. Sometimes I try to balance too early (my dance training?). Balance is easy, no big deal, if you let everything stay flat, as you say. There's much more risk and joy in finding balance out on the edge. Great thoughts, my friend.--M

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Love it

Love, love, love the diamond story, Sharon.

"I know sometimes I wonder if I'm over-doing it, and hold back. Other times, I let it all out, then wonder if I'm overdoing it."

And there it is too, bare of metaphor, in plain English.

I very much appreciate your words as well.