Saturday, April 26, 2014

Know Thyself... but be open to new ideas



Note: I’m part of a small writing guild called Scrawl. This is an excerpt from an issue of the Scrawl newsletter.

For various reasons, I’ve recently been thinking of Emerson’s concept of Self-Reliance. Now, that’s not meant to go against the spirit of collaboration that this guild is founded upon – after all, our group perfectly matches Stephen King’s advice: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open” – and the comments on this last round of stories seemed to be particularly insightful. However, Self-Reliance is meant in the spirit of inner reflection and the contemplation of your core values, even those that swim upstream of society and resist conformation with the world.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- That is genius.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all read those advice lists about writing and immediately thought of a counter-example. For instance, in Chuck Palahniuk’s essay “Submerging the I,” he advises hiding the fact that the story is written in first person until after the narrative has been established and the story has some authority. He writes, “My personal demon is any story that starts with ‘I.’ That instantly turns off my attention. But that’s just me.” It is just him, because when I read that, I instantly thought of the opening of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” That’s the example that comes to mind, but in every one of those rules for writing articles, you’re going to find a few that rub you the wrong way – Jonathan Franzen’s “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction” also looms at hand, with writers like Teju Cole publishing compelling fiction via Twitter accounts just one illustration of how that can’t be true.


Yet we still read these lists because for every rule that doesn’t get you, you’ll find one that seems to have been unlocked from deep within your soul. You need to mix Emerson’s “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” with Aristotle’s “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Know thyself – but be open to new ideas.

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