Self-Conscious Writing

by Peter Selgin

I reach into my shoulder satchel, pull out a story from one of my students. Halfway down page one I read:

…Vivid images of dreamful places lie scattered about on library shelves in the castle walls of his mind. He feels immediately lost among the memories and hopes scribbled on the walls and the veritable vaults of past thoughts and future dreams that will never come true. He passes through the traumatizing memories room but not without turning his head to say hello to the last happy image of his dear departed wife. After a wave hello he runs on through skipping along hallways of time past and present not knowing what he’s looking for. A picture of a chapel suddenly fills the screen of his mind’s eye and the wedding scene with his friends and family replays like a reel-to-reel slideshow, his memories of those better days bright and illuminated. Suddenly the cocoons that filled his stomach before are the butterflies that fly there now, with his thoughts placed like subtitles under his subconscious movie …

I lower the page with a sigh.

Some beginning writers operate under a false assumption: They assume that stories are about language. But language is merely the medium in which stories are created.

Here, that false assumption is hard at work. In that blizzard of mixed metaphors (castles and libraries, slideshows and movie screens), what is being evoked? Little beyond a flurry of words—words that remain dreamy abstractions (“traumatizing memories,” “bright and illuminated”). Where is the world of the story? Who are the people? Is there a story?

With rare exceptions (Ulysses, Lolita), stories are never about language, or never exclusively about language. Yet the above passage gives me nothing else. It is, essentially, a piece of writing turned inward against itself. The subject of the passage, in fact, is the way in which it has been written. It was written to call attention to itself, to writing as a self-conscious process, and thus to the writer himself.

But good writing doesn’t bring attention to us as creators; it directs the reader’s attention to a created world. We do that by losing ourselves in telling a good story—making discoveries that we invite others to enter into with us. New writers don’t do this, often because they don’t understand that they’re supposed to do it.

Did my student intend to draw attention to himself? Knowing him, I would answer, No. In fact he’s a shy, self-effacing person. Raising the question: How does a shy, self-effacing person end up creating the rhetorical equivalent of a billboard that shouts LOOK AT ME!?

Self-consciousness (not to be confused with self-awareness) inevitably impairs our capacity for empathy and understanding, substituting a competitiveness and overcompensation bred of our own insecurities. On behalf of our starved egos we show off, drawing unflattering attention to our work and to ourselves.

All of which happens unconsciously.

Except for clowns and sitcom stars, no one really wants to make a fool of himself. But the ego has its own agenda. That is why egos can’t write. They can string words together, but every word that they string is informed (and corrupted) by the desire to impress others—a desire fed not by strength, but by weakness, by self-consciousness.

Not that there haven’t been egotistical authors, including some great ones. The headline of Norman Mailer’s obituary in the Times read, “Towering Writer With a Matching Ego Dies at 84.” Some “towering egos” manifest in the scale and sweep of their owner’s ambitions (Balzac, Ayn Rand), others through the flamboyance of their public personas (Wilde, Hemingway). Mailer did both. Jean Cocteau famously remarked, “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo."

Then there are artistic egos that express themselves defensively. For Tennessee Williams, every bad review was an obituary that would plunge him into an alcohol- and pill-supplemented isolation. So protective was Saul Bellow of his ego, he wouldn’t tolerate criticism of his work from even his closest friends; no sooner did they criticize him than the friendship ceased. Even a Nobel Prize failed to thicken Bellow’s skin. Ernesto Sabato, the Argentine author, reminds us, “Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extremely thick skin.

This article is excerpted from Peter Selgin’s book, 179 Ways to Save a Novel.