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Writers Talk About Writing

Causes of Writing Death: Narcissism

Recently I wrote here about trivial purposeful falsity, TPF for short, a major cause of writing death. Here's another: narcissism.

To show how narcissism kills writing is a tricky business, for we could call all writing narcissistic. Writing is born when an "I," a unique human being, marks a medium with words to say whatever he or she wants to say. Every word and phrasing choice reveals something about who the writer is. Being human, each writer is so vast an entity that we can never describe that self fully, but when we read, we do sense a spirit like and unlike ourselves behind the words. Since writing can convey the self to other humans, many (if not all) writers feel their impulse to write strongly connected to their impulse to communicate their selves, their "I," to the readers they hope for.

Readers, however, are often too wrapped up in their own affairs to listen to those hopeful "I"'s calling from desks lost in the wilderness. Writers often feel they must shout through their words, "Listen! What I have to say is important! Listen to me, me, me!" to succeed in catching and holding a reader's attention. Writing is a medium, we do not meet the writer face-to-face, so a flamboyant, confident style can help a writer propel his or her "I" through the medium and into the "I" of the reader.

We must therefore set a high test for what constitutes narcissism in writing. Is Laurence Sterne narcissistic? Semi-disguised under the name Tristram Shandy, Sterne prances upon his page assuming that we'll follow his galloping hobby horse through whatever quirk of life and letters he finds fascinating. Yet I find Sterne a generous, modest writer, far more concerned that we love his sublimely innocent Uncle Toby than that we admire the "I" of Tristram Shandy. Lesser writers may not be able to make egotism so interesting, but if scribbling on their pads makes them happy, no harm is done.

On the other hand, readers will not allow any one "I" to dominate the medium. Let's make an analogy with speech. Conversation in all languages has age-old rules and guidelines to ensure the communication remains a two-way street, both speakers talking, both listening, both responding to each other about a subject of common interest. That subject can be one speaker's self, and often is, but the speakers can also talk, and often do, about something other than themselves, be it music, literature, the weather, politics, or a brand new movie. Good conversation blends speech from both parties an easygoing flow: at times we assert ourselves, at times we defer. When discussing a movie, we sometimes talk about the acting or story objectively; at others we admit to frankly personal reactions: "When she grabbed the knife, I screamed!"

It may seem as we read that the writer "I" is doing all the talking, yet any writer who wants his or her work to live will, by a variety of subtle means, welcome readers to the conversation. Good writers pace their prose, setting the length of a scene, a stretch of dialogue or digression, to match what they expertly gauge will be the pace of the reader's interest. They draw the reader to their side by sharing observations, jokes, and intimate expressions of fellow feeling. When a writer does try to do all the talking, we readers resent it just as we resent a speaker who tries to hog the conversation.

That's what I call narcissistic writing, and here's an example: the writing of the late William F. Buckley. "I"'s crop up inevitably in any first person narrative, but Buckley often pushes his "I" to the fore one, two, and three times a line:

So I assembled most of the crew. This time I would take her to Mexico. During that trip I decided on its completion I would experiment with a crewless boat. I would cut expenses...

After a run of "I"'s like that, a good writer might find a way to put himself second in an upcoming sentence, for instance:

Reggie and I talked about it on the Mexican trip.

Not Buckley! His "I" must lead, must dictate:

I talked to Reggie about it during the Mexican trip.

—and his crew had better enjoy being dictated to:

"...At what time do we meet at my suite, Tony? Very good, Tony. 7 pm is not 7:30 pm, is it Reggie?" Of course, when you say things in that tone of voice, it pays to make the schoolmasterliness hyperbolic, in which case it is accepted in good humor. I mean, accepted in good humor by the kind of people I sail with, who are all splendid, having in common their recognition of my unique qualities.

Page after page this "I" marches by the reader in pompous parade. Buckley makes sure we know "I" is no ordinary fellow. He's an American aristocrat, pampered as a child, wealthy all his life, though he proudly relates his penny pinching:

...I had undertaken to provision the wine cellar of the Sealestial. This is a very serious business. On the one hand, money is very definitely a consideration. Anyone can provision a wine cellar successfully by averaging ten or fifteen dollars per bottle. My aim was to average $3.50 per bottle, and I can report that superb wines were drunk for twenty-nine days...

"I" has intimate suppers with Charlie Chaplin. Beside his yacht and his houses in Connecticut and New York, he has a house in Switzerland, "(which is where I write my books)"—the parentheses stand like castle walls to exclude the reader from "I"'s privileged precincts. Even when Buckley's "I" writes about God, he insists on center stage. After starting a book titled "Why I Am Still a Catholic"—

I came disconsolately to a decision to abandon the project...despairing over the reading and studying I wished to do and had no time to schedule. I returned the publisher his advance payment, put away the copious notes I had taken, filed away the only chapter I had actually written (it survives, slightly altered, as the opening chapter of this book), and then proceeded to feel lousy about my capitulation. The reason for this you can probably guess: I felt I owed something to God.

Speaking as one reader "you," no, I hadn't guessed why Buckley felt he owed something to God—his pompous "I" parade had already so bored me that I didn't care enough to guess!

Narcissistic writing bores readers because narcissistic authors love themselves more than their readers. They don't write, they preen; instead of holding a mirror up to nature, they hold a mirror up to themselves. Under all their prose, whatever its apparent subject or argument, runs a monotonous subtext: "Look at me, aren't I wonderful?" This self-centered pose may charm readers who, like Buckley's crew, find it good politics to laugh at the wealthy captain's jokes. Yet time does not favor the fatuous, and soon enough narcissistic writing smirks its final smirk and rests in peace forever, the willing victim of its own self-absorption.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 11th 2010, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Seattle, WA)
Several years ago a good friend told me that you can gauge how self-centered or "narcissistic" a person is the number of "I" 's in their correspondence and other writings. After reflecting on his words, that truth was blatant and the knowledge can be used as one way to gauge another's motives. Although not full proof as exceptions do exist, it's been accurate much of the time. Since then, anything I write is viciously scoured for that pronoun and edited if there is an overabundance. If editing can't solve the problem, the words normally end up in the electronic version of "file 13", the recycle bin, as it is doubtful they would have a widespread audience. It's much better to rethink the worthiness of the topic and start over if warranted. .
Thursday November 11th 2010, 2:58 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Seattle, WA)
Ooops... My apologies. "I" ;-) meant to thank you for this article. On top of it being interesting, it is lovely to see my friend's theory validated.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 7:18 AM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Well put Mike.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 7:26 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
It's ALL your opinion, I tell my fearful college students who have had their voices whipped out of them by structure, rules, formulas, red pencils, grades, tests. What do you think all those books and articles in the library are if not educated opinions, based on good critical thinking and research! Still, Michael Lydon makes a good point about taking it too far in the opposite direction, leaving OUT the critical thinking and the careful examination of as many facets of a question as one can see or imagine. I especially like his final paragraph.

No apologies whatsoever for the pronoun "I"--just told a group of literature students, "I don't give a damn what your sources think. I can go read those for myself. I want to know how what they think illuminates what you think." Too often I get a synthesis, even a cut and paste job, when I want student writers to engage with the story, using their own brains. "You are entering a conversation already in progress," I tell them. "Yes, you listen to hear what people are saying, but you have something to say, as well." Having said that, I (I, me, myself, nobody else) truly enjoyed this article and really DO agree with it. A matter of the middle road, I suppose, as it usually is.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Curtiss (Galveston, TX)
My business correspondence improved 1000% when I learned to work "I" out of what I wrote.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Very interesting, insightful and challenging! The challenge (or one of the challenges) is to look at one's own writing with unblinking honesty in search of evidence of narcissism.

The fourth paragraph of Lydon's article has an excellent description of spoken conversation, which in some cases is not converstion at all, if one of the participants is particularly narcissistic or, to use a milder term, self-absorbed. The term "self-referential" is even gentler but still wincingly clear - it describes people who refer to themselves a lot, who seem to want more than their share of time in the conversational spot light. These traits are very common and are especially annoying when one recognizes them in one's self!

On the other hand, as Joyce noted, some people are too hesitant to share their thoughts and feelings - they might be (or might be perceived as) timid, modest, private, secretive, detached, anti-social, bored, insecure - who knows? I suppose the goal is to find a balance - the middle road, as Joyce said.

I'm really intrigued by Lydon's ideas of how we as writers can engage our readers and invite them into a "conversation." I will file this essay and re-read it now and then, and be more aware of varying degrees of narcissism in what I hear and say, and read and write. Thank you, Mike!
Thursday November 11th 2010, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
As someone who writes/edits for others in business (particularly marketing), I have to advocate for the readers point of view in dealing with overuse of the corporate "I/we" point of view. It's not too hard to take Lydon's words and apply them to my work: I plan to keep the article and refer to it often. Thanks, Michael!
Thursday November 11th 2010, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
What a great article, Michael. How rare it is to find completely fresh insights! I had read a couple of William F. Buckley books, but never knew why I found them disappointing and a little sad, through all the personal triumph. Thank you very much. Graeme
Thursday November 11th 2010, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
Of course, the opposite problem is the irresponsible passive, so beloved in bureaucratic writing: "a decision was taken" ...
Thursday November 11th 2010, 3:39 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I know what "narcissitic " means.I compare it with the "personality cucult" when someone often uses "I" vfor writing or speaking. I don't hear about William F Buckley. The same concerning Laurence Sterne.But i know that is very unpleasant to bring everything back to yourself always.
IF I often use "I" because my English vocabulary is not abundant, when I write I make effort to change my sentance.

Thank you very much .
Friday November 12th 2010, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Claudia L. (New York, NY)
Removing the "I's" is a basic rule of writing and speaking as this piece makes clear...It became a rule because it has stood the test of time. While the 'corporate we' in business writing can become too namby-pamby, it does at least ensure to a degree that some pretense of a two-way dialog is established.
And, not for nothing, but the current occupant of the Oval Office, has a distinct penchant for overusing the personal pronoun "I" -- many pundits have been pointing out lately. It is quite irritating to the listener, like a sour note in music, once you've noticed it.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 10:56 PM
Comment by: Madeline P. (Atlanta, GA)
The comments here suggest confusion about the main purpose and the primary medium treated in this article. As suggested in the title, this article specifically suggests ways for authors of text to engage their reading audience.
Political commentary and criticism seems quite inappropriate here, especially when referring to a politician's spontaneous speech and not a studied, edited, and perhaps refined writing style.
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Bryan S. (State Center, IA)
It's ironic that as the entire world becomes more accessible to us, we become more obsessed than ever with our own navels. This is an age where the writer has a cornucopia of subjects to explore - all available with a simple "click" - yet few are venturing outside themselves.

The Twitterati have spoken and, sadly, the "I's" do have it.

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