Omphaloskepsis* (Navel Gazing)

I was recently invited to take part in an event in which writers, mostly amateurs but a few professionals, read samples of their work. (I read the introduction to my novel Angel.) I noticed when the event had wrapped up that out of more than a dozen writers almost all of them had read a passage that was autobiographical.

When William Shakespeare died, none of his contemporaries thought to write a biography of the man. There is little we really know about his family life, his personal habits, his personality, his loves, his political views. This was not because his peers didn’t respect him. They recognized him as one of the greats, if not as the immortal bard we think of today, and so they made a point to collect his writing and put it in print. That was enough of a tribute for them.

Shakespeare did not live in an age of memoir and personal essays. Literary biography was still in its infancy. The word “biography” itself did not yet exist. It wouldn’t become current until 1600.

I just finished reading Contested Will by James Shapiro. Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar, takes on the conspiracy theorists who believe the man from Stratford could not have written the works attributed to him. What makes the book most valuable in my estimation is that Shapiro goes beyond debunking to examine how changes in our assumptions about literary work have made these theories popular.

As we moved from the early modern to the modern period people began to think of Shakespeare not as a dramatist who observed human nature and recorded it but as a poet who observed his inner life.  By 1845 “the notion that Shakespeare was autobiographical, singular, and divine was indelibly imprinted on readers and theatergoers,” Shapiro writes.

Once people started to believe that Shakespeare could only have written about his own experience– things he had done or felt rather than read about, imagined or adapted from other writers– they started to ask how a simple actor could know about the emotions of kings, conversations in the court, and exotic foreign lands.

The notion that Shakespeare conceived of his inner life as we do is anachronistic. “Even the meaning of key concepts, such as what constitutes an ‘individual’ were not the same,” Shapiro writes. “Writers, including Shakespeare, were only beginning to speak of individuality in the modern sense of ‘distinctiveness’ or ‘specialness’– the exact opposite of what it had long meant: ‘inseparability.'”

Philip Cushman, in his book Constructing the Self, Constructing America calls our current conception of humans “the empty self.”

“Vast historical changes in the last 500 years in the West have slowly created a world in which the individual is commonly understood to be a container of a ‘mind’ and more recently a ‘self’ that needs to be ‘therapied,’ rather than, say, a carrier of a divine soul that needs to be saved, or simply an element of the communal unit that must cooperate for the common good.”

The idea is that there is some great void inside that needs to be filled and healed with therapy, which will make a self well-adjusted and whole. This notion combines in America with a Jeffersonian notion of the pursuit of happiness and the mind cure, self-help culture that emerged in the 20th century. Now we tend to think we are consistent selves regardless of context, rather than as people whose behavior exists in response to external events. Our job in this life is to discover the true nature of this beautiful, powerful self and by using therapy to fill the aching void, live out our full potential– the ultimate goal of which is happiness. Happiness and self-confidence are assumed to have all manner of biproducts– better relationships, better careers, a greater ability to do good in the world.

A whole series of popular books put the act of writing into this framework. The way to produce authentic, meaningful writing, they say, is to plumb your depths. Focus on emotionally charged episodes from your personal history and write about them in vivid detail. This is both a form of therapy– to fill the empty self– and a way to discover the unique, unchanging self buried within. Writing is less about communicating with a reader as it is about self-discovery. People are assumed to write as a form of “self-expression.”

I got into a discussion with another writer yesterday on Twitter.  I had commented on a quote (posted by another writer).

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” ~ Cyril Connolly

I replied “Not sure on that. If no one reads them words on paper are just blobs of ink.”

Just to make clear what I meant by this– I was not saying that a writer should chase after trends and commercial success– this rarely works anyway. The real question is not “Should writers compromise their visions or not?” It is “When does a writer need to follow her instincts and stick to her vision and when does she need to make changes in order to better communicate with readers?”

What my spur of the moment response, with all of the nuance I could muster in 140 characters, represented my firm belief that writing is not completed by the author but by the reader. It is a relationship between author and reader.

Readers have no particular reason to concern themselves with my life or who I am. They want to know who they are.

My new Twitter friend has a different understanding of the purpose of writing than I have. A few days after I posted my response to the quote he replied expressing the view that “…writing is a path to understand the complexity inside.”

Now it may simply be that we are talking about two entirely separate things– writing in a journal as a form of auto-therapy is a perfectly good thing to do and not everyone has any interest in writing for an audience.

The problem I have is when assumptions about this kind of writing shape the concept of what professional writing is and what purpose it serves. I am especially bothered by the notion that it is supposed to be more artistically pure to write without any concern for the reader.

From Contested Will I learned that in Shakespeare’s day a script began with what were called “foul papers”– the author’s rough draft. This was followed by a “fair copy” (a scribe’s transcription of the author’s draft) or a “prompt copy” marked up to be used in the playhouse.

I love the expression “foul papers.”

Writers churn out a lot of words in order to get to those phrases that work, the plots that can sustain a book-length work, language that sings or timing that is comic rather than boring.

Books like The Artist Way address a certain part of the creative process. There is a time, especially when writers are starting out, when the most important thing is to get over fear and self-doubt and to give yourself permission to do bad writing. Foul papers. You need to start. It’s the only way to get to those gems hidden in the garbage.

Journaling for self-discovery is its own goal and its own reward. That is fine. This is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about people who believe their foul papers should be accepted as art without any revision.

The foul papers can yield great things, but they are raw material and not a finished product.

I wrote about this in my book Broke is Beautiful:

Creativity is, in fact, anything but lazy… We chronically misuse the term “creativity” as though it were a synonym for “originality” or “imagination.” The misuse of the term “creativity” makes a lot of imaginative people unhappy. They do something original, label it “creative” and feel that they should be admired and rewarded. This is like putting sugar, eggs, milk and flour in a bowl and expecting everyone to compliment you on your delicious cake.


If you go to the section on “writing” in the book store you are likely to see an abundance of two kinds of manuals; books that aim to inspire you to get past your writer’s block (these are generally labeled as books on “creativity”) and guides to publishing markets. Many aspiring writers jump from The Artist’s Way to Writer’s Market without the intervening step of actually writing a book and expect publishers to start having a bidding war over their journal entries.


What you don’t see are many books on the very un-sexy process of sitting down, crafting and re-crafting those original concepts until they are a viable finished product. Creativity is much more fun when you don’t have to deal with the whole pesky creation part before reaping your rewards. Hard work is a harder sell. This is a disservice in two ways. It gives people unrealistic expectations about material success and it devalues what artists actually do by equating it with simple daydreaming

What is more, neglecting this work fails even as “self-expression.” In order to express yourself you need someone else to receive the message.

Of course you should care about the reader. You write for the reader, not to hear yourself speak.

“If the act of writing is not enough, no reader can fill that space,” wrote my conversation partner.

Note the reference to the “empty self.”

The assumption here is that writers put pen to paper in order to fill an emotional void. The desire to be read is cast not as a desire to create something meaningful for others, but as a way to get affirmation from them. When wanting readers is understood as a desire to fill the void, it becomes a form of greed. (This ties into another of the concepts I’ve been discussing here– our assumptions about the value of fame.)

“I create because I have to, whoever chooses to participate in my creativity is a bonus,” wrote my Twitter friend.

Whoever chooses to participate in my creativity…

The creation exists to please the creator. It is the product of the creator. It expresses the creator. Others can participate, but the important thing is that it is mine.

This way of thinking is supposed to be more artistically pure.

I couldn’t help but wonder though. What if he had said this: “I explore my sexuality in order to understand my own impulses. If anyone else wants to participate that is a bonus.”

Writing is a relationship.

I lot of this, I suspect, is a defensive posture. Convincing yourself that not being read is what you wanted all along beats being frustrated when your desire to reach readers is thwarted.

Like my Twitter friend, I write because I can’t imagine not doing so. I wouldn’t call writing a joy or a pain, rather it is a fact of life. A default setting, if you will. It’s something about me, like my height or eye color.

Of course, it feels much better if you are persuaded that it doesn’t matter at all if anyone out there appreciates your work or not. You’re going to do it either way. If your goal with writing is to fill the emotional void and to bring happiness and stability into your life, I highly recommend the “write for yourself” approach, actually. Remain content with filling up pages and throwing them away. It’s very zen, and probably quite healthy.

I do not accept, however, that wanting to reach an audience is a form of vanity and somehow less pure than writing as zen practice.

We all have our skills, and wanting your skills to be of use to the people in your community is not selfish. It means you want to do something that matters to other people. Yes, it does matter if your writing is read. Yes, it does matter if you write in a way that communicates with readers. Yes, real writers do care about that. No, it does not make them all vain egoists.



*Omphaloskepsis is contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation.





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