On Writing for One’s Self

Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood. Write with blood, and you will experience that blood is spirit.

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

In his critique on the method of Sainte-Beuve – a method of reviewing an author based on the account of their life rather than the content of the work – Proust makes an observation that is both obvious and brilliant (and most brilliant observations are obvious in hindsight): that the self of the author that writes a book is different to the self that lives the daily life. The former is the authentic self, the voice with which the author speaks when they are alone with themselves, when the mind, free to contemplate, begins an honest conversation with itself, yearning to “hear and to render the true sound of our hearts”. The latter is a projection that mirrors society, an inauthentic self that conforms and adapts to its environment, or gives in to the failings of human nature. As Proust puts it: “the writer’s self shows itself only in his books”.

The Web is the biggest publishing platform in the existence of mankind, and it is also the biggest collection of inauthentic prose. Countless guides on writing and publishing content online tell the young author to get to know their audience, simplify their prose, craft the headline and insert the right words for the search engines. Even if the writer ignores the insidious advice on writing for the machine, they are still left with the advice telling them to write for their audience. Such advice typically warns the writer never to write for themselves, but rather, to seek to understand the needs and wants of their audience and do their best to satisfy them. The result of this is that from the outset the young writer is pushed away from authentic prose, pushed away from an attempt to dive deep into their own hearts, listening to the feelings and emotions they find there and trying to make sense of their causes and meaning. The selfish contemplation that is the product of writing for one’s self is paradoxically the very thing that is most valuable for others because only through this form of contemplation does the author produce work that has any true worth. To write for others is to try to mirror the world you do not care to understand, to try to satisfy desires you do not have yourself. Such prose may be entertaining and valuable, but it can never have the energy needed to follow out a thought to a difficult conclusion, nor does it have the honesty to produce work that would be valued more tomorrow than today.

Consider also that any work that is valuable must also be new and strange to the reader, must either challenge their thinking or present them with something they have not thought before, for if they merely agree with what they’ve read, what was there to gain from reading it? As Ruskin said in King’s Treasures:

“Very ready we are to say of a book, “How good this is—that’s exactly what I think!” But the right feeling is, “How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.”

The point of good writing is not to tell the audience what they already know or what they want to hear, but to give them your perspective, to give them your sight. This can only be done by showing yourself what you true self really thinks, and the issues your true self cares about won’t have the simple and agreeable conclusions of superficial chatter.

To Nietzsche, the power of sight given us by another was the only thing that could elevate our knowledge of the world, for to him all knowledge was subjective. From On the Genealogy of Morals:

There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.

Attempts at “objectivity” in your prose is in essence a way to destroy your own sight and with it any worth that your work could offer to the reader.

In I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter presents the concept of a soul-shard, a human artifact that contains within it a piece of a human soul. Hofstadter gives the example of a book of Chopin’s études for piano. The book is simply a collection of paper with black marks on it, but in the right hands, those marks are transformed into the music of Frédéric Chopin, and playing and hearing the music has the power to put you into the same state of mind as the genius that composed the work, in some way resurrecting a long dead consciousness within yourself. To Hofstadter, this idea is not merely a beautiful metaphor; the soul, if considered as a pattern, would actually exist once more through the music which was a part of it. Granted, only a tiny fragment, but a fragment nonetheless. Writing, I think, works the same way, perhaps even more so that music. When we read prose, we consciously process the words and sentences that the author created, joining our consciousness with theirs for the duration of the read. When we read prose, we recreate a fragment of the author’s consciousness within ourselves, following through, together, the thoughts of his or her creation.

Perhaps the most detestable thing about inauthentic prose is that reading it is a mechanical activity that suffocates the mind by forcing it to process inhuman patterns of thought. Inauthentic prose is, in a limited way, a soul-shard, but it is a very inferior one for the road it lays out is not an honest construct of the mind but a path created to conform to some requirements the author thinks their work aught to satisfy. As such, when we read inauthentic prose our mind is forced into a sort of mental straightjacket that limits and contorts the motions of our thought, forcing it process inane and banal statements that hold no meaning or worth neither to their author nor to the people reading them. In reading prose that does not flow naturally from the author’s consciousness we force our own consciousness into inhuman, inferior patterns of thought, and in the process degrade and cripple it as those patterns leave their mark.

The opposite of this is why reading good prose is so exhilarating. Here, your consciousness joins together with that of a genius, elevating itself to their level for the duration of the reading. Proust has expressed this idea in his essay on John Ruskin:

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.

The value of such prose lies not only in the ideas it gives us, but in its ability to raise our patterns of thought to higher planes, and, with enough constant application, keep them there. It is always a sign of good prose when you wish your mind to be more like that of the author, and, vice versa, it is always a sign of bad prose when the author’s stream of thought is disagreeable to yours, not because it is awkward or difficult, but because you can see it is below that of your own.

Dante’s Divine Comedy presents an interesting illustration for this form of power we can draw from great art. In guiding Dante in his prose, Virgil guides Dante in actuality in his work by serving as an example and inspiration, inspiration in a much more literal sense that we are accustomed to using today. By reading Virgil, Dante inspires a fragment of his spirit, resurrecting and animating it within his mind. Virgil’s spirit in turn elevates his thoughts and gives him the strength to create authentic work. So while we know Virgil as the guide in the story, Virgil acts also as a guide to Dante in reality, helping him rise to his level through the work he left behind. Additionally, in employing Virgil as a character throughout the story, Dante’s work is always placed in relation to the master, forcing him to maintain the highest level of quality and authenticity throughout.

Beyond the sight authentic writing gives us there is also courage, courage to do the same. A writer that bleeds on the page shows us the way, shows us the level of work that is possible, the heights we should aspire to reach. Forget the advice that the mediocre swarms feed on. Return to the masters. Show us that you have the courage to go beyond, to do the work that is yours, not theirs. Defects in style and lack of breadth or depth are all faults, but they are excusable; there is always more to learn, and with time they can be corrected. Inauthenticity is inexcusable.

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“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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