Monday, January 05, 2009

Me, Myself, and...Who?

“Writers are the most vain, self-absorbed, and self-important people on Earth. After all, what makes a writer think that anyone wants to hear what he has to say? Vanity, pure and simple.”

For the past several years, I’ve heard people say this in varying forms – both from writers and non-writers. Whenever I heard it, I disagreed wholeheartedly, but couldn’t articulate why. I mean, I’m a writer, but I don’t think I’m self-centered or vain. So are these people wrong, or am I deluding myself?

I had to know, so I started on an objective analysis of myself. Beginning with searching my soul for the answer to this question: why do I write?

My first answer was “because I have to.”
Well, why do I have to?
“Because if I don’t, I’ll go crazy. Then I’ll drive everyone around me crazy.”
Okay, but why would I go crazy?
“Because there are all these stories running around in my head, and if I don’t get them out, my brain will overload.”
Stories? Who’s stories are they? Mine, or someone else’s?
“Hmm, I’m not sure. I guess they could be mine, since they come from my head. But, really, they come from characters in my head. And the stories belong to them.”
But what do these characters have to do with it since I write the story? Doesn’t that make it mine?
“The story may start out as mine, but, by the time it’s finished, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the main character.”
But...I write the characters, and since I write what I know, aren’t the characters really me?
“Sort of. Some part of them come from me, but the rest comes from watching other people, imagining myself in their positions, and seeing the differences between us. The end result is a person who’s perhaps similar to me, but definitely not the same, who has her own story to tell.”

A-ha! I’d discovered that I really wasn’t setting out to make other people listen to me. I wanted them to listen to the main character. Then I frowned in puzzlement...why did I want people to listen to my characters? This question had me stumped for a long, long time.

Meanwhile, I had a conversation with a friend about music concerts, and which had been our favorites. She had seen some great bands who played some of her favorite music of all time. Yet, they weren’t her favorite concerts. Her favorite was Phil Collins. I was surprised, because she’d never been a die-hard fan. So I asked her why. And she said “because that man knows how to entertain!”

My mouth dropped open in amazement and I practically yelled “Oh! OH! I get it now!!” My writing wasn’t about me or my characters. It was about entertainment. I felt like such an idiot for not seeing it before.

There are stories running around in my head that I think others might enjoy. That’s what Phil Collins does – he doesn’t have to put on an entertaining show, but he does because he thinks his fans will enjoy it. Does that make him vain and self-absorbed? Nope. He just sees something in himself that he thinks others will enjoy. Rather than keeping it to himself, he shares it with us. And we enjoy it. I think this is what sets him apart from the wannabes and the blips (short-lived bands), and why he was around for so many years.

I think writers who never forget their readers are the ones who will be truly great, giving us amazing story after amazing story for years. But if you only focus within, you'll lose sight of your reader. And then who's going to read your work?

So, what are you? A wannabe? A blip? Or a writer?

20 comments:

Marcia said...

Along with that self-absorbed charge, I hate the one that says "Writers are liars. They make up lies for money." Writers themselves often say both of these things.

We often start out thinking writing is self-expression. But if we stop to think about how much we love books and would be so much the poorer without them, we realize we can enrich and entertain someone else. Writers are paying it forward.

Carrie Harris said...

Oh yeah. I also hate the one about writers having issues, because how can you write about things you don't know? If your characters have issues, you must have 'em too.

Gah. I need to quit listening to generalizations about writers.

GutsyWriter said...

Although I don't write fiction, I wanted to post another reason. Opinions and comparisons between cultures and nationalities keep spinning around in my head all the time. For example, "Why do Americans seem so much more focused on their kids to the point of not being able to discuss anything else at a social gathering, whereas, the French rarely bring up their kids?" This is just one small example, but I feel I have so much to say in the form of writing articles, non-fiction, travel related stories.

Jacqui said...

In part, I write for children and sort of to my self as a child, to entertain, and to say, "You know what? I was there. I know it's hard, but you're not alone and it's going to be okay."

Rena said...

Interesting post! :)

PJ Hoover said...

Since I've started doing some appearances here and there, this becomes SO much more obvious. My job is to entertain. Whether it's on the page or up in front of a crowd of people. Bring out their emotions. Make them laugh. Connect with them.
Great post, Tabitha!

Nora MacFarlane said...

Food for thought, Tabitha. Good topic.

liquidambar said...

I suppose I think of self-absorption, to some extent, as a human trait, not limited to writers. And I don't mean that in a pejorative way. Biologically speaking, it's helped keep our genes alive all these years!

Everyone thinks they have good stories to tell. Writers are just those of us who take the trouble to write them down and polish the heck out of them.

And I think we all know that what's most appealing about our stories is not what it tells others about us, but what resonates with the readers. Nobody (except maybe close relatives) reads our work as a kindness to us; they read it if it something in it speaks to them.

Mary Witzl said...

There are so many reasons why I write that I too have trouble trying to explain this to people who don't know me well. Yes, I want to entertain, but even more than that I want to connect with people and show them slices of life that might make them think more about their own lives. I want to shake some people up; I want to cheer up others; I want to share some of the things I've seen and the knowledge I've slowly accrued. I write MG novels because I remember how awful a time I had as a young teenager and how important books were to me then -- particularly those about girls whose lives were difficult.

And even if some writers are self-absorbed, that isn't the worst thing in the world: all writers have to go through a lot to get their work out; most have to endure a long, hard soul-trying process of having their egos whittled down bit by bit. The way I see it, a self-absorbed writer has a better chance of having the surplus ego knocked out of her than an office manager or doctor.

But try telling that to my in-laws...

Christina Farley said...

You sure hit it on the head. That's EXACTLY how I feel. I guess I never really thought it through as good as you have. So thanks for sharing.

beth said...

Totally with you here.

Personally (having just gone through holidays) I HATE it when someone leans over and says, "So...you're a writer? What have you published?"

AAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!

Bish Denham said...

Very interesting post, Tabitha. It's hard to remember a time when I didn't write. Even my worst stories intertained my tolerant family. Maybe because most of us writers are loners (at least that's true for me) we want to/need to live vicariously through the characters that populate our heads. Maybe it's my/our way of being extroverted.

Bish Denham said...

Ahh, I see my dyslexia showed up...that's entertained, not intertained! GAK!

Gottawrite Girl said...

I think all artists have issues. You gotta be able to delve in deep, otherwise, where are you pulling from? And "liars"... well, that's loopy. Writers must pay more attention to the truth than most, or lose the reader altogether!!

Thanks for the post, Tabitha, and take care!

C.R. Evers said...

hmmm. . . interesting. I haven't heard that "self-absorbed" thing before.

And wow! that is the opposite of me. IT took me forever to go to let other people read what I had written because I didn't think I had anything worth saying, but like you, I had stories to get out anyway. Then, let's not even get into the humbling process of being critiqued. Having your ver soul picked apart and disected. Yikes!

Thanks for the food for thought. Great post!

Tabitha said...

Wow, sorry for being so absent. This is my kids' first week back to school, and I had to take care of a few things that I couldn't take care of while they were home. But I'm almost caught up...almost. :)

Marcia - SO true. All of it. Writers aren't liars, we're weavers. And, just as someone else has given us a tapestry, we give our own tapestries to others. Excellent points!

Carrie - yeah, I'm not fond of that one either. I am not my characters. :)

Gustywriter - you betcha!! I think writers are all about sharing, not about standing on a podium and saying "listen up!" :)

Jacqui - that is an excellent point that I decided not to attack. Writing for children is different, and the "self-absorbed" comment doesn't apply to us as much. I think people find it more acceptable to tell children what to do, so that label doesn't come out as much for us. But I totally agree with you in that we don't tell them what to do. We're just sharing our own experiences, which might help them in some way. Thanks for bring that up. :)

Rena - thanks!

PJ - I was wondering if this is how it's been for you, and was really hoping you'd share. Thanks!! :)

Nora - thanks!

Jenn - in general, humans are self-absorbed on some level. Some more so than others. And we all need to be at least a little self-absorbed in order to lead a balanced life. The comments I've heard from others make it sound like writers lean closer to vanity than self-awareness. I don't think all of us are that way. :) I think the great writers are self-aware, not necessarily self-absorbed. Excellent points you bring up!! :)

Mary - LOL!! Yeah, I can understand having a zillion reasons to write. And you bring up some excellent points, which I completely agree with. Writers need to know themselves in order to write effectively. It's when the self-absorbtion borders on vanity - that removes your objectivity, which makes your writing less effective. But I totally agree that writers need to know themselves, then be able to dig deep and lay it all out for others to enjoy. The most effective writers know which experiences are ones that others will be able to relate to.

Christina - thanks! :)

Beth - LOL!! Yeah, I hate that one too. Like, I'm not worth talking to unless I've been published. pfffttttttt! :)

Bish - sounds like you were one of those people who were born to write, which is awesome that you've kept it up even through your dislexia. And I totally agree about writers wanting to live vicariously through their characters. I think everyone does that! :)

GWG - so, so true. If we don't delve, it shows and our work is flat. Writers need to be self-aware so that we can put the realness of ourselves into our characters. If we don't know ourselves, how can we know how to create other people? I also think the "issues" you bring up is common in artists because it gives us a reason to look within. After all, if you didn't have major issues, why would you delve deep? :)

Christy - I'm like you. It took me forever to share my work, and I still have some work that I will NEVER let anyone see. I'm just too shy. But I still have to write them, so I will keep them under lock and key. :)

Such amazing comments!! Thanks so much to everyone for sharing your thoughts. :)

Anne Spollen said...

I think, when my issues aren't daunting me, that I write because I love books and want to be a part of that world. It's really that simple.

BA Boucher said...

Nice post.

I caught the link over at CC. I restarted my blog after 6 month lapse and my first post was about my vain need to blog.

What a coinky dink

Merc said...

Great article, Tabitha. I do like to entertain--and while it's taken me awhile to actually, consciously GET that I do (I've sorta vaguely known but couldn't pinpoint it)... I tend to write sorta focusing on myself, as a reader, and writing as well for a few individual people who are beta readers/crit partners.

Not sure how to explain it well, but eh, yeah, I do want to entertain people. I can always write random stuff for myself, but it's far, far more fun if other people actually enjoy it too. ;)

~Merc

Tabitha said...

Anne - a fabulous reason. :) And I'm guessing you're not alone. :)

BA Boucher - great to see another CCer! I'll have to check out your blog as soon as I have a spare minute. :)

Merc - yeah, far more fun. And I totally get what you mean about writing random stuff for yourself. I do that too, and those things I specifically keep to myself.