Recently, in my writing class, one of my students apologized because she’d spent her thirty minutes of writing time scribbling what she described as “nothing worth reading.” This woman is a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and English Department Chair at one of the most prestigious private schools in Los Angeles. Everyone in our class knew that although she felt “off” that night, chances were better than decent she’d written something worth listening to—despite her disclaimer that it was “just a bunch of selfish navel-gazing.”
Of course, her writing was nothing of the sort. Though her writing was a bit gloomy and dark, it was also introspective, insightful, and deeply moving. When she finished reading, the room was silent. No one wanted to break the spell woven by her words.
“What’s great about this,” I said, “is how much we can all relate to it.”
“Really?” she asked, slouching and peering out from behind a curtain of straight brown hair. “Isn’t it just so self-absorbed? So much doom and gloom!”
“It’s closely observed. It’s honest. It’s the truth. Your piece gives me the chance to reflect not on your life, but on my own. That’s why we read. We hope to see ourselves reflected in other people’s stories.” I paused and then added, “We don’t care about you—I’ve got my own God-damned doom and gloom! Your piece helps me recognize and appreciate it.”
“That’s great,” she said, nodding her head and grinning. “I’m writing that down. ‘We don’t care about you!’”
Everybody laughed. But what followed was a meaningful discussion about why we read. The main point that emerged was this: readers are selfish. They want to see their own lives reflected in what they read. They want to resonate with a writer’s story, to feel that it represents some truth or experience they themselves have either had or glimpsed, and perhaps never articulated or fully understood. They want light bulbs to flash in their minds as their eyes scan the page, they want their hearts pried opened, they hope to understand something new, to be taken to some pinnacle of awareness or insight that will give them what they need to navigate their own sublime or treacherous journeys.
They don’t care about you, the writer, per se. But since we’re all made of the same stuff, if you tell your story well, if you’re transparent, unflinching, if you’ve learned to give good detail, if you’ve unpacked great imagery, understand takeaways, character, story, and theme, readers will see themselves in your tale as clearly as if they were looking into a mirror.
The only thing “off” about my student that night was her judgments of herself, and of her writing. I see this a lot. I’ve threatened to put a jar on the coffee table in my living room into which my students must toss a quarter for every apology, excuse, or self-deprecating remark made prior to reading what they’ve written.
Writers, resist the temptation to judge yourself and your work. Think of your writing as sandbox time. Dig. Play. Get dirty. Make friends. Explore the shapes of things. See what you can build. But don’t take yourself too seriously. The more important your writing feels, the better it serves you to think of it as a game. A diversion. Something you do for yourself first. Enjoy it.
And by all means, feel free to do your fair share of navel-gazing. Peer into the center of your world. Examine your spirals. Move into your interior sections. Pluck and plant your seeds. If you can see your life and the lives of those around you clearly, and if you can describe it honestly, you will learn and grow—and others, who come later and read what you’ve written, will find their own lives flickering before their eyes. They will see themselves in your writing. As I’ve said, this is why we read. And it is also why we write—to connect! There’s nothing selfish about that. Writing is an act of generosity. The more you look inward, and the more you share what you see and know, the greater the gift you give.
This post was featured earlier this month on She Writes, an online organization serving over 20,000 writers.
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