Self-expression? Is it?

– by Alexandra Sokoloff

I attended an event last weekend where I was in a mix of people from wildly diverse backgrounds, which included a fairly intimate dinner, and we had a chance to all go around introducing ourselves and what we do, and of course instantly you get that validation of Just How Cool being a writer is if you don’t actually have to do it every day, especially those days when you know you’re never going to get that subplot to work.  (Oh!  Right!  Yes!  It’s cool!)  

One woman was enthusing about self-expression – how great it must be to live a life that is totally about self-expression.   And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what she was talking about.  

But she seemed so sure, and so I tried to get into her mindset, because I wanted to understand, but I didn’t see where the “self” part was coming into it.  

I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I pray anything at all before I lie down to work  each day (because now you all know I don’t SIT down to work) it’s something like this:   “Please God/dess, Universe, Angels, Fairies, Story Elves – let me serve this story and make it whole and somewhat readable and also marketable, please, thank you, Amen, Sat Nam, Ashe, etc.”  

It’s not that I don’t put myself into what I write – I know I do.    I put my whole life experience and observation into what I write, all the time.  I write on the themes and the subject matter I write because I care passionately about those themes and subjects.   But what I am and what I’ve experienced and observed and care about is only useful as it serves the STORY.   In fact, I myself am only useful as a channel to serve the story (although I have many other fine qualities as a person, but we are talking about me as a writer, now.).  

But what this woman said really got me thinking about what we do, as writers – how we define what we do.   And self-expression has almost nothing to do with my job description, as I see it.  

I think what I do is create an EXPERIENCE for a reader or audience.   Reading a book or seeing a film (and I’m talking about fiction, now, and especially genre fiction)  is about getting completely out of yourself and going on a journey as someone else, or multiple someones, and LOSING yourself in that experience – an experience that is solely in your mind, but can sometimes be far more gripping than anything in real life.  

Actually (and you can tell me if I’m being just too Hollywood for words) – you could say what we do is create theme park rides.  Some of them very smart ones, but still, theme park rides.   You could also say we create dreams.    We take our readers through a dream.  And our absolute, bottom-line goal is to create a dream state so hypnotic, so mesmerizing, so enticing – that readers/viewers get lost in the dream.     And I’ve actually heard editors say this over and over again on panels – that the number one requirement they have for a book is that it doesn’t break that dream state.  

Think about it.  Isn’t everyone’s favorite review a sincere: “I couldn’t put it down”?  

Hmm, now that I’ve put it like that – are we much more than pushers, really?   

Okay, maybe I’m digressing.   But now that I have put it like this, do you see what I’m saying when I say that this has very little to do with self-expression and everything to do with being acutely attuned to serving the EXPERIENCE – the needs of a reader/audience?  

I am a genre writer.   I am very aware that I was continually hired in Hollywood because I could deliver a certain experience of spookiness and sensual chills.   As a novelist I continue to deliver that experience of spookiness and sensual chills.    I am privileged as a novelist (much more so than I was as a screenwriter) to be able to bring my specific, warped tastes to the stories I tell – but my bottom-line mandate is to deliver the experience.  

And my other bottom-line mandate is to serve the story.  I am not doing my job, I cannot calll myself a novelist, if I do not deliver the STORY.   That is: an uninterrupted dream of an experience, from beginning to end.  

Now, as Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”  We need look no farther than our Amazon reviews to realize that not everyone will have the experience of our stories that we hope that they will have.    But our best chance of pleasing as many of the people as we can, as often as we can, is being as true to the STORY as we can be.   And in my experience, that’s about acknowledging what I want to experience in a story – and then committing to get out of my own way as much as I possibly can, in order to let that experience come through me, unimpeded by some need for “self-expression”, so that I can provide that experience, uninterrupted by ego, for other like-minded people.  

This may be an analogy that makes sense only to me, but I will try to explain it anyway.    When I got involved with dance, first it was because I was acting, and dance training just increased my chances of being cast in productions I wanted to be in.  I worked hard, really hard, to learn the language of dance, to make my body an instrument that was capable of dance.   Then I kept dancing even when I wasn’t acting anymore because – well, because the endorphins made me less likely to have a complete nervous breakdown.   And I kept dancing and training and improving just because I was actually really good at it and nothing else made me feel so much like myself, and it wasn’t at all about being cast or anything except the fact that not doing it was agony.  And then, after all those years, I was actually good enough to get paid for it, pretty much accidentally.   

Well, I’m sure a lot of people think dance is all about self-expression.   But when for the first time in my first professional show I told a choreographer “That pose doesn’t feel like me,” and he looked at me in that totally dom way that choreographers have and said – “What do you have to do with it?” –  it suddenly clicked for me that professional dancing is about serving the dance.    I – and my body – were really just props – a medium of expression for something much, much bigger.  

And that’s how I feel about my writing.   I have honed my “instrument”, as actors say – after years and years of work I have the technical skill it takes to write, to deliver the complete experience of a story.   But all of that technical craft is just so that the story can flow through me – from wherever the hell it comes from.  

Self has something to do with it, no doubt.   But mostly, we have to leave self behind, get out of our own way, and serve the story.   And hopefully – hopefully – deliver the experience our readers are looking for, hoping for, wishing for, when they pick up our books.

So am I the only one who feels this way?  Do the rest of you, or most of you, feel that your writing is about self-expression?  Or how would you describe what it is that you do?



40 thoughts on “Self-expression? Is it?

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not being in on your conversation, but having heard versions of it, perhaps the woman meant to say something more along the lines of creativity itself. The majority of people don't have any moments of creativity, that moment of surrender and satisfaction. I think sadly it is drummed out of people somewhere in high school unless one has displayed obvious and undeniable talent or someone has the inner drive to follow a thread of it.
    And I think you're incorrect to take "self" out of the equation. The self is the engine without which creativity could not ignite. Ego should stay out of the way but self is there.
    Creativity can be as simple as a craft project, as personal as raising a family and creating a home, and as grand as putting art out in the world. There is inner creativity where the magic is internalized (I feel it inside my body and soul when I sing around the house) or it is externalized for more people to experience .
    I most appreciate the creativity that goes into creating story because I'm addicted and need to be constantly fed and that I'm able to afford to feast is very satisfying.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    BTW, I love your posts. We have got to have a discussion at some point over caffeine or alcohol at Bouchercon. 🙂

  3. Debbie

    Perhaps it depends on the motivation for writing? My own writing experience is to get the story down in the best words, order…to serve the characters and storyline (which the characters hand me a little more than roughly developed) but if I had heard somebody say that before having ever put pen to paper, I would have thought them a little unbalanced.
    A friend of mine writes music and he says his best songs flowed from him, they were the ones he didn't try to create. My Aunt is a painter but needs inspiration. Perhaps what that person was trying to express was voice and inspiration?
    What if you are danceing or playing piano for yourself? Do you fine it more self-expressive.

  4. Grace

    Beautiful post – stimulating. Can't wait to read all the comments. I'm an amateur, a wannabe published person, so I will hold my comments and enjoy those who are more experienced in the writing field.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, I think you've hit on what made me uncomfortable in the conversation – there's a huge difference between Self and ego. Authentic self to me is about releasing ego.

    But also, what I do is not pure creativity, by a long shot. What writers create are products. I like your phrase "external creativity" – reminds me of Aristotle's definition of artists: productive philosophers.

    And yes, we definitely need to commune at B Con!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debbie, you're very right that you feel differently about what writing is once you've actually done it. It's a hard thing to explain to someone who hasn't.

    I don't know that I play piano or dance for self-expression. I like the sensuality of both of those activities. It's about my own pleasure – and if I'm dancing with someone or for someone I am also interested in giving that person or people pleasure.

    I don't play the piano for anyone else, anymore!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Glad you're here, Grace! Honestly, I'd be interested in hearing what drives you to write – sometimes I feel very far removed from that initial impulse and I love to hear other people talk about it.

  8. billie

    Alex, I think I get what you're saying, and agree with it. I think of writing a novel as me (my self, I suppose) tapping into something that is both outside of me and bigger than me. I do make the decisions about the story, in a way, but it's more like I'm trying to remain open to what the story already is and let it come through in my particular way.

    There's a line in my first novel where the main character talks about writing – she imagines herself sticking her pen into the air and hooking the words, then putting them onto the page. I love that image although it isn't exactly how I feel about writing – for me it's more about getting outside my "self" so that I can access material that is filtered by me, but doesn't necessarily come from me.

    Archaeological excavation is more how I think of it on a daily basis. I'm uncovering something that is buried, and it does have layers that are "me" – but usually the end story is what is beneath the "me" layers.

    Not sure if any of this makes sense – fabulous subject though and it will be fun to see what others have to say.

    It's a nebulous process!

  9. Kaye Barley

    Alex, I love this piece. Thank you!
    You're talking about some issues that I'm struggling with right now, so I'm going to be re-reading and pondering what you've written.
    Validation for one. How I view my own validation, as opposed to how others "think" they're showing me acceptance and validation. How can those viewpoints be SO different?!
    In your case with this woman who has assumed much too much, no matter how you attempt to explain things to her, she's stuck where she's stuck and doesn't want to move.
    I love the idea of writers creating theme park rides for us – that just "works" so well!!

  10. Louise Ure

    Alex, you're much more articulate about it than I could be, but I agree with you.

    And in a much more superficial way, I've often heard writers say, "I lie for a living." There's no self involved there at all.

  11. Dudley Forster

    Alex – It's Saturday, my brain sleeps in on Saturday. Now you want me to think deep thoughts. Let me wake up, grab some coffee, run an errand, then if my brain appears I 'll be back .If that doesn't work all start the laundry, my brain goes into fight or flight at the mention of laundry, so it'll be awake then. See ya later.<g>

  12. Dudley Forster

    See I just proved my point – I can't tell the difference between I'll and all…….. Actually, that wasn't me, it was the story, I just got out of the way 🙂

  13. Kagey

    Having made my living as different kinds of "writer", I believe it is a spectrum. There was no "me" in the computer manuals I used to write, and very little me in the curriculum guides I wrote for how to use student loan software. The trainers who used my curriculum had more self-expression — their personalities made it easier for them to develop rapport with students and to teach.
    As a business writer, a tiny bit more flare came into it. I was expected to communicate some emotion not only straight facts. And as a creative writer, however much I'm serving the story, the ideal image behind the poem, or the argument fueling the essay, they are still my stories, images, and arguments. Or, to use the dance analogy, I've gone from being the dancer (technical writing) to being the choreographer AND the dancer.

    Only in my journal am I totally ego-driven. That's because there is no consideration for audience.

  14. JT Ellison

    I love this. After having an experience like yours this week that left me feeling totally goofy, fraudulent and unworthy, I want to build a sign for my brain that screams GET THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY. Now granted, I'm in promo week prior to release, and all I want to do is curl up and write and I can't find my focus. Hopefully after next week it will be better. Thanks for this, Alex. It isn't about SELF, that's for sure.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You are RIGHT ON IT, Alex! I am with you one hundred percent. What a great observation. And I love that dance instructor saying, "What have YOU got to do with it?"
    I learned this lesson going from Boulevard to Beat. I infused much more of myself into Boulevard, my thoughts about life, my little narrative tangents. But Beat is pure story and it's faster and maybe even better because of it. I stepped out of the way and let the story take over.
    It's a good lesson for us all. In the end, the best I can be is a vessel to be filled with the story I have been consigned to tell.

  16. Laura Jane Thompson

    Reading is a form of escape. No matter what is going on in my life, I know that in the evening, I'll get in my pajamas and curl up in bed with whatever book I happen to be reading, and I'll disappear into the story. Even better, I'll discover that the characters in the book have it much worse than me. How can a bad day at work compare to running from a psychotic killer with the entire U.S. government funding his murderous spree?

    Writing fiction gives me that same sense of escape. I don't want to think about my boring, mundane life when I'm creating a story. I want to disappear into whatever world I've created and learn to see through my characters' eyes.

    It's probably impossible to write without filtering at least some of your work through the lens of your own experience and worldview, but in my opinion, the more the author disappears, the better.

    This is probably why I only pick up one or two memoirs a year.

  17. allison davis

    Alex, not every writer can be a good teacher but you really can articulate these struggles we have. The book I'm writing now is all about serving the story and what motivates me is getting the story right so I infuse the reader with the same passion I am feeling for is. Damn hard to do. Self expression may be more like writing poetry…piece of thoughts as expressions perhaps. I don't know as I haven't written much poetry in the last few years. The novel writing is about the story…the "self" is the teller, the animated actor, the voice — but without the story, there is nothing to tell.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, Kaye, I think this woman was really expressing a longing for more self-expression in her own life, when writing is often about as self-expressive as plumbing. Constructive, yes, absolutely – expressive… not always so much.

    I am going to be interested to hear about your forays into your own creativity at B Con – can't wait!

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, thanks. I never think of myself as lying for a living. A story is a story – it's a whole different animal.

    Dudley, no one is required to think, here, as surely we've demonstrated over and over again!

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kagey, it's interesting that you bring up technical writing because I feel so much of fiction writing is exactly that – you're having to move characters and plot from point A to point B so that the reader experiences that seamlessly – with no interruptions, logic questions, or gears showing.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, I've had a lot of life intruding this week, too, exhausting. I feel your pain, having to interrupt the writing for the whole dog and pony show, but I hope you have total fun once it starts.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Stephen, yes, vessel is a good word for it. And we're definitely chosen – "consigned" – by certain stories because of who we are – our experiences make us capable of telling particular stories better than others.

  23. KDJames

    Maybe what that woman meant to say was not so much about self expression but that writers create something. There are so many jobs that create nothing. Writers create a finished product but we also create a connection with the reader. We create that "ride" you mentioned, we evoke emotions and responses with our words.

    In a way, we serve as self expression for others, if that makes sense. We express what others are not able to say for themselves. I'm always a bit taken aback when someone tells me I've said exactly what they wanted to say, only I've said it better (as people are always saying about your posts, Alex). Or that something I wrote moved them to laughter or tears or anger or whatever. So perhaps some readers view writing as a vehicle for self expression, yet don't realize it is their own. I've caused THEM to express a part of their self, some emotion. But probably I did it in a very calculated manner, without a whole lot of consideration for expressing MY self. That sounds cold, and it's not. I think part of learning how to be a good writer is figuring out how to be manipulative. In a way that is subtle or undetectable. Of course. 😉

    And maybe this is a completely wild tangent away from the point you're making, but I just can't stand it when I hear writers talk about opening up their psyches and putting their whole being into it and bleeding onto the freakin' page. GAH! Yes, you have to tap into and understand honest emotion. But it's not about what the writer feels. It's what you are able to draw from the readers. JMO.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Allison. I figured I couldn't be the only one who's ever felt like this.

    I find good poetry so dazzling I suspect there's every bit as much craft going on there. Journaling, though, is pure self expression, and great training for writing… maybe we have to get THROUGH that kind of self expression to get to the point of being able to write fiction.

  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Katherine, that's a really great observation about books allowing readers to express their own emotions, and emotion in general. Of course a reader is not necessarily aware that the author wasn't exactly going through that emotion herself, but designing an experience what would allow the reader to go through it.

    I love that!

  26. Paula R.

    Great post, Alex!!! Truthfully, I never really thought about writing stories or novels as a means of self-expression. I read for the experience as you put it. Actually, the only writing I deem one of self-expression is poetry. Am I wrong in thinking that? Who knows…

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Paula, I'm sure to get in trouble, here, but why not?

    Maybe some free form poetry is more pure self-expression, but I wouldn't call Shakespeare's sonnets self-expression. They are intricately constructed systems, musical, philosophical, startling. If anything poetry like that is technically even harder than writing a novel.

    That's an extreme end of poetry, but even the non-rhyming poetry about yoga that my yoga teacher reads during class is very thoughtfully designed to convey in words the inner experience of yoga and meditation. So I wouldn't really call that purely self-expression, either.

  28. Dao

    Once upon a time, I had a similar conversation with one friend in my writing group. I told her that for once in my life, I want to finish a novel and get it published so people can read it. She looked straight at me, rolled her eyes, and said, "Published? I don't want to get published. I just write to express myself."

    Not wanting to launch into a debate, I just left it right there but it made my think of why I wanted to write at the first place. Sure, the story is mine, the writing is mine, but at some point around page 50, I had to step aside and let the story unfold on its own. Your post really brings the point home to me and I can't thank you enough. Unless it is a secret project, the story deserves to be read by an audience. At that point, there's not much about self-expression anymore.

    One funny thing: every day, I wreck my brain out to write as much as I can, to push my story forward one word at a time. As we speak, I'm close to 80,000 words and if The Force is with me, I will end this story soon at 100,000 words. Those friends in my writing group who are all about self-expression do not even have a story. There's so much about self-expression in that group but I don't see it in a written form, at least for now.

  29. pari noskin taichert

    You've captured an important distinction and expressed it better than most people ever would. I've always been uncomfortable with the whole self-expression thing for the reasons you've explored. I don't want to sound mystical when I talk working in service of the story, of being a conduit . . . so I tend to stay home rather than go to any dinner parties <g>.

  30. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Dao, if you have 80,000 words, The Force IS with you! That's awesome. And if you are wrecking your brain out (perfect way to describe it) every day, you have that compulsion that makes a real writer.

    Keep your eyes open for a group that might have other, more driven writers in it. Things like that have a way of showing up when you need them. On the other hand, if your self-expressive writing group is also full of good critiquers, then that's great! Sometimes the best critiquers aren't all that serious about their own writing, but as long as they're helping you, that's what matters.

  31. Marie-Reine

    When I write I'm not very anxious to expose myself, and I have no sense that anyone gives a fuck who I am– totally okay. I love taking that dream-vision ride that I think other people might like to join. I like entering that other world. If it were a place of the self-expressed me, I certainly would not want to fucking go there. I see enough of myself in real time and space!

  32. Debbie

    Stephen's comment and your response sum it all up perfectly to me, thanks!
    Do you think that this differs between plotters and pansters with regards to self expression? And on a slight tangent, but brought to mind with your response to Katherine with regards to emotions…. A character handed me the end of my book in the form of a diary early on in the writing process-of course, I didn't know this until I got to the point where the character nudged me and said, 'place the diary here.' When I reread it in context of the final story I said, 'Oh my God, it's finished!' (and then I cried!)

  33. Paula R.

    I completely agree with you on Shakespearean Sonnets not being pure forms of self-expression. And who says you will get in trouble? We are just having a great discussion, all sides needed in order to have great discourse, yes? When I said poetry is more a form of self-expression I was really talking about my own poetic works. To be perfectly honest I didn't look pass that. I also don't think that Chaucer's work of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are pure form of self-expression either. This is a great post and I am glad we were able to have a discussion about it. Sometimes I forget what it is like to have really deep "adult" conversation, especially when working with kids 24/7. Thanks! I hope you had a great night.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

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