There Is No "I" in Book

A bit of Spring sunset tumult from last night. As with many things, it brewed up to be a big deal, but really produced very little.

Allison and I were talking about self-absorption yesterday. Self-involvement. Narcissism.

These terms get tossed at writers quite often. And usually, I think, by the people who want the writer to be paying attention to them, rather than to what they’re writing. I ended up telling Allison that she’d been necessarily self-involved in completing her Revisions from Hell in record time.

Then I realized, that’s not true at all.

She hasn’t been self-involved; she’s been absorbed in her work. Writers drew the unlucky straw of doing an awful lot of their work in their heads, in dreamy states that are arguably other planes of existence. It tends to make them unavailable for paying attention to the people around them, which can lead to rancor.

Blogging and memoir-writing – often the same thing – are also targets for the self-involvement critics. “Navel-gazing” they love to call it. If that’s so, would going back and reading one’s own blog posts be navel-gazing at navel-gazing?

I say no.

Once you produce the writing, it becomes something outside yourself. It’s art. A painting is not the artist’s self. A symphony is not the musician’s self. An elegant bit of code is not the programmer’s self. All of these things, to varying degrees, do reflect the person who created them.

It’s an interesting thing to me, as I’ve mentioned before here, to go back and read my older blog posts. I particularly like playing “this time, last year.” The May 27 post from last year is full of sadness about getting a “no” from the agent I really had set my hopes on. Quite a bit has changed for me in that time – my strategy, how I’m going about things.

What non-writers may not realize is, reading your own work rarely feels like a familiar thing. I’m often surprised by what I’ve written before. People have quoted my work to me and I failed to recognize it – which irritates them. I understand why it would, but it’s lovely that they’re quoting something I wrote. It just no longer sounds like a piece of me. It has its own life.

So, Allison, I take it back. You haven’t been self-involved at all. You’ve been involved in your book.

And that’s an admirable thing.

11 Replies to “There Is No "I" in Book”

  1. Terrific post! I especially like this:

    "What non-writers may not realize is, reading your own work rarely feels like a familiar thing."

    I had the bizarre experience yesterday of getting an email from my agent describing a conversation she just had with my editor. They were talking about a particular scene in my debut, and while I knew exactly which scene it was, all I could think was, "wait, you've both READ that? And not only read it, but paid attention enough to quote it to each other?" I know it seems like a silly thought to run through my head, but that's exactly it — as a writer, you spend so much of your time in your own head. Even after a book is sold, you still think of it as something rattling around in your brain instead of something that has become the property of anyone who reads it.

    Guess I have to get over that, huh?

    Anyway, great post!

  2. You've said well, my friend. You've said it well. There are times that I am amazed at the voice of a piece is actually "mine" – rather like hearing yourself on a recording. "That's me?"

    Thank you for reminding us of the power of our creation… 🙂

  3. Amen! Great post. Timely, too, as I was just playing around with one of my books I hadn't looked at in over a year. It was like an out-of-body experience.

  4. Tawna – isn't that truly bizarre when that happens? I'm not sure we ever really get over that shock that our little noodling thoughts are out walking the streets by themselves. I wonder if authors with years of books feel differently?

    And Kristina – that's a perfect analogy. Really that external voice is exactly the same thing, isn't it? Instead of the internal one…

  5. Linda – that matches Kristina's analogy. It IS a kind of out-of-body experience, because the work is now outside you and not filling your head. So interesting…

  6. I needed this today! Lately my husband has been calling me "Shiba" claiming that all he ever sees of me is the back of the Toshiba laptop. Sometimes it's hard to break away but the end result is usually worth it.

  7. Glad it hit a chord, Anne! Sometimes I wonder if women worry more about this (if any men are reading, you're welcome to protest!), about paying attention and whether their man is calling "come back little Shiba!" (couldn't resist that one!)

  8. I want to note that Allison redacted her comment because she thought it sounded too self-involved. But from the one who saw it fleetingly: You're already giving back in spades, darling! Everything's a cycle. You'll have your chance.

  9. Yeah, I did.

    But I really do appreciate this post (especially given that I'm going to have to resubmerge into edits for the next few weeks again.)


  10. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that many people don't consider writing a 'real' job. For all but the fortunate few A-listers, writing is not only a job, but a *second* job. They think it's all playtime, but while there is definitely an element of joy in it (or at least, there should be), when you've got a signed contract with a stated deadline and an editor waiting on you, dicking around is not an option.

    Even when you're not getting paid, if there's a story that wants out, it's coming out, and if that means you spend 12+ hours on a Sunday glued to the keyboard and forgetting to eat, that's how it's going to be.

    The people who understand what being a writer means, or who understand or care about you (or both) will know that absorption for what it is.

    The rest really aren't worth worrying about.

  11. Eloquently put, Kendris! If there's a fine line between being self-involved and dicking around, may we all be gleeful narcissists!

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