Self-indulgent writing

In discussions with some acquaintances of mine, it was pointed out that my Great American Novel runs the risk of being self-indulgent considering that the protagonist is largely based on me. I have alwaysbeen cognizant of that risk, that I might end up writing a thinly veiled emotional autobiography where my goal is to create a great piece of literary fiction.

Tonight, I just realized: my story is not self-indulgent. I shouldn’t have to worry about that. See, I don’t go around airing my grievances through my character, and I certainly don’t go around plopping down autobiographic set pieces. The story itself stands on its own. Similarities to myself and my life are there merely because my experiences serve as the template. But by no means do they define the character. I’m not writing about my torridly tumultuous childhood and how my dysfunctional family turned me into the tortured adult I am today. My novel is not some perverse Freudian self-examination.

No, my novel transcends my shitty past. Instead, I write my character from a distance. The same way I have a knack for stepping out of my own shoes (to a certain extent) in order to have a grounded look at myself and my circumstances, I use this ability to step back to make sure that my character is his own man with his own problems. That I am writing this novel in third person certainly helps. And having years between the inspirational events and my writing helps as well. Had I decided to go with first-person (like my favorite novels Catcher in the Rye and Anti-Hero), I am sure that it would inevitably become nothing but a shameful dramatized autobiography. I find that I strongly dislike the self-indulgence of autobiographies that are based around negative life experiences. Such things must be tastefully written so that they are more than just a big protracted diary or memoir. Everyone has negative experiences and to be frank, assuming that everyone wants to read your story is extremely self-indulgent. The goal of telling stories about oneself should be to inspire or to create an emotional connection and movement in the reader. Save the rest of that other rubbish for the therapist.

  • I have been trying to do some writing myself, and after reading this article, I realise that much of my writing is just self-indulgent diary writing. I will do some thinking about emotional connections and movement.
    Maybe I could write in the third person too. My first person narrative has made it perhaps a bit too personal for me.

  • Thanks for writing in!

    I think it’s a very easy trap to fall into. It’s one of those “dangers” of being a writer, something that you have to watch out for. After all, the best writing comes from a place of truth, honesty, and realism. What better to write about than something we personally have gone though ourselves? ‘Write what you know’ goes the adage. All of the factors are there to make it easy to slip back into writing what is essentially an autobiography, just with some name changes. I often have to step back from my writing to make sure that I’m not falling into that trap.

    It’s just like how one should to watch out not to merely identify oneself as a writer when you might have only desire and not the talent or technical skill.

    It sounds a little harsh, but I of course am this harsh towards myself. It keeps one grounded in reality. It’s far too tempting to go through life fancying oneself as a writer without having completed any actual work. Having ideas and stories floating in one’s head isn’t enough. That’s why, whenever convenient, I make the distinction to identify myself as only an aspiring writer.