Thinking About Indulgence

Posted by @ 7:36 am on October 7th, 2010

This guy. Yeah. This one.

A friend of mine sent me a link to this letter ‘To a Young Writer’ from Wallace Stegner (you know, the guy  that fellowship that rejects you every year is named after.) The letter is long and dire and occasionally overwhelmed me with anxiety. I mean, it’s a great read. No, really. Uplifting.

You write better than hundreds of people with established literary reputations. You understand your characters and their implications, and you take the trouble to make sure that they have implications. Without cheating or bellowing or tearing a passion to tatters, you can bring a reader to that alert participation that is the truest proof of fiction’s effectiveness. You think ten times where a lot of writers throb once.

And there is very little demand for the cool, perfect things you can do. You have gone threadbare for ten years to discover that your talents are almost sure to go unappreciated.

Ok, great! Pass the barbiturates, Wally! If you can get past the fact that (prepare for a news flash) you shouldn’t expect ‘literary’ fiction to earn you a fabulous living on it’s own, the letter raises some interesting questions. I’m just going to point out one that caught my eye.

For one thing, you never took writing to mean self-expression, which means self-indulgence…I speak respectfully of this part of your education because every year I see students who will not submit to it—who have only themselves to say and who are bent upon saying it without concessions to the English language.

One of my least favorite phrases is ‘self-expression.’ When people say they make art or write or sing or whatever to express themselves, I immediately stop listening to them. Someday I’ll be able to forgive this turn of phrase, but for now, I can’t help it. It’s a red flag. (Like ‘Work hard, play hard.’ Yuck.)

We speak a lot about books being ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘masturbatory,’ but less is said about things being too self-expressive. Good writing goes deeper than the self; it isn’t about you, in particular. It’s a hole that you dug through yourself using words like pick-axes until you reached everyone else, or at least a lot of other people. Which reminds me of that post that Mike Young put up the other day. I loved that post. (And it’s weird to realize that sometimes it’s a random blog post that sticks with you and not that one book you read months ago Who wrote it? What was it called? It was so… expressive.)