Friday, October 22, 2010

To Be Yourself or To Be Understood


First and foremost, make sure you have read who won the Nevetsized Halloween contest!

Secondly, I've had a pretty interesting conversation with Scott Bailey in the comments of his post today on the Literary Lab.  I decided to move some of my thoughts over here before I was really hogging the comments field.

I hope I write this clearly, because this is actually a very personal post, and when I ask for your advice and thoughts in the end, it's a sincere request.

The quick and dirty version of where the conversation between Scott and me ended up: I read, write, and think in a very different way from most people, and my writing process sometimes gets bogged down by the process of trying to convert my way to the way of most of my readers.   Scott's advice was to just forget that conversion process, and write it like my brain writes it, and treat it like I'm writing it for people who read like I do, too.

That is actually a pretty amazing bit of advice, and I'm chewing it over greedily.

But there's a catch.

It runs the risk of reducing my readership.

I don't care for that risk.  (a) I like the idea of a lot of people reading my stories.  (b) I still hold onto to the pie in the sky hope of some day making my living from my stories.

So, really, my writing is caught up in the same dilemma that has perplex me most of my life.

Here's where it gets a little complicated and a little personal.  (If you've read the thread or some old blog posts, I apologize for the repetition of a few pieces of this.)

The basic challenge lies in the distinction between inductive thought and deductive thought.  Inductive thought involves reasoning from the bits and pieces to understand the whole.  Deductive thought involves reasoning from the big picture down to the particulars.

All of us use both at one time or another.  Most folks are pretty balanced, but tend to read, write, and learn inductively.  It seems to make the most sense.  You put the pieces together to get the answer.  You follow steps.  You gather clues and work out the solution.

Some people, like me, are inclined very strongly to deductive reasoning.  This is often inexplicable to inductive thinkers, because it looks like we guess a lot.  It seems like we're using our intuition.  We'll state what we take as fact, be asked how we know it, and all we can say is, "I don't know?" because to us it's just apparent and we don't really understand the question.

As teenagers, we tend to get in trouble for that one. :)

It was only in the past few years that I began to understand this.  For most of my life, all I knew was this emotionally crippling frustration with my inability to properly interact with others on matters of knowledge and expression.  To get through school, I learned how to let myself get to the answer my way when possible and then make myself go back through the inductive steps to try and show how I got there.

Often a very frustrating experience because it's not really how I got there, and I would often introduce weird "errors" into the process.  But if I didn't try to do it, people were rarely satisfied with my answers or my messages.  "Okay, that sounds good, but how do you know that?"  "I might be to understand better if you explained why you believe that."

And that's what I'm wrestling with in response to Scott's suggestion today.  It literally never occurred to me to write the way that fits my mind, because I'm used to having to translate.  It's just habit.

Now that I'm thinking about possibly doing so, it at least feels to me like I'm facing the old challenge: should I be myself or should I let myself be understood?

The former is the most appealing answer, obviously, and it's in some ways an easy recommendation to make.

But the elementary school kid in me is saying, Oh no, not that again.

So, bloggers, readers, fellow-writers, and friends, what are your thoughts on this?

Aside from the obvious fact that I'm over-analyzing myself once again. :)



  1. Nevets: Here's the thing. Like you, I'm a deductive reasoner. I don't understand anything at all until I have a gestalt. I do not think it's as rare as you make it out to be, nor do I think it means we enjoy or understand narratives in a way that's exquisitely foreign to others. My thing with thinking about storytelling is to figure out a way to encapsulate the idea as a whole, as a gestalt, because the individual bits and bobs of storycraft make no sense to me in isolation; they are meaningless without everything else at the same time (which makes it hard for me to talk about one or another aspect of craft in isolation because I feel like I need to talk about the whole world of writing in order to talk about phrasing and rhythm). My experience of reading is not the same as anyone else's, but that doesn't matter. I am able to make myself understood verbally and in writing, and that's all there is to it. You are going to fail--and fail really fucking hard--if you try to aim your writing at some kind of imagined reader who is vastly different from you. Your best chances are to just write compelling stories in the best prose you can that fits your own taste.

  2. @Scott - Perhaps it's not rare. Admittedly, my perception of that is drawn from my own experiences and certainly inadequate study of psychological literature, and perhaps those have both skewed my understanding in that regard, since it's a limited sample and subject to all kinds of other factors.

    And I appreciate that in an artistic sense, you're definitely right.

    And I'm trying to convince myself that if I write like that it will just make my product all the better and therefore my writing will succeed or at least succeed to the best of its potential to do so.

    For better or worse -- and certainly better for some things and certainly worse for others -- I learned as a child to navigate the world by anticipating its requirements or the way it will most effectively receive what I'm trying to present, and then crafting my message to meet those requirements or expectations.

    I can appreciate that that's a stupid and limiting approach, but it's ingrained in me to have a target audience and package my material for them. It makes teaching go really well. Perhaps it makes writing terrible.

    Maybe there's some way to shut that part of my brain off, but I don't know what it is.

    Maybe it's just to do it. But I don't know how to just do something. I don't just do anything.

  3. By the way, Scott, thanks for your patient tenacity. I may be slow on the uptake sometimes, but some back and forth always helps kick the brain into gear.

    I do believe you're right and I appreciate your insight and honesty; I'm just trying to process my way to understanding what it really means practically.

  4. Why not create a piece solely for figuring out which way you would like to write better and which way a general readership would like you to write. naturally in College I have to access my writing to my audience. Its the same with story telling.

    Think of it this way- trial and error. maybe Clarissa would even be willing to let you write her story your way instead of reader friendly way and since she is already posting the story, maybe the feedback that comes through that story will give you an idea on how your "audience" will handle it?
    Or you could just write a short piece, post it here and ask for opinions, then rewrite the same story the other way and see what readers think?

    It makes sense to be yourself, but I understand taking the "audience" into consideration. Often we over analyze how the audience will read what we say rather than trying it and finding out.

  5. What if you wrote a short piece 'your way'?

    Create a scenario and freewrite, serving not as translator but as amanuensis.

  6. I think you're worrying too much and through that worry you lose the valid purpose of writing. Writing is like your conscious talking out-loud and if you put a limit to that, in fear of not making sense to your readers, a lot of pieces will be missing; maybe even ideas. I say, write everything you want and need to say. I doubt it won't make sense. There's an audience for everything.

  7. One of the interesting things is that I think over time I've figured out how to do this in short form. So, I suppose, the real challenge is how to replicate what I do when I write short stories in novel form. That seems elusive to me.

    @Summer - The idea of writing a story both ways has a sort of appeal to my scientific side. I'll have to give that some thought.

    @B - Increasingly I think my short pieces are coming out of the natural angle of my brain. I am intrigued by the idea of acting as not as a translator for myself but as an amanuensis for myself. There's something there.

    @L'Head - You've definitely hit on part of the problem. As Scott says, I'm thinking about it too much. As you say, that ends up in worrying about it too much. Too many hopes and dreams pinned on this writing thing. But that's a whole other level of baggage. hahahaha

    Thanks for the thoughts, everyone, keep 'em coming. I learn through interaction.

    I suppose it's all a Hegelian dialectic for me.

    In the end, it all comes down to: I need to be more like Scott. lol

  8. I think Scott makes a good point when he says you can't write for an imagined ideal reader. I try to write in an interesting voice about people I care about and hope that is enough.

    I don't like to analyse too's like trying to describe a joke, it either works for you or it doesn't.

  9. Nevets, I like people's suggestions here to just try it both ways. If you say you've managed to make this work in the short form, well, then I say it works. I really like your short stories. They aren't confusing to me, even though I do sometimes wonder how you come up with them. This concept of deductive versus inductive reasoning is very revealing to me. Maybe that's why Scott and I never seem to communicate effectively when we talk about writing! Apparently you and he are more on the same wavelength when it comes to working this out. But, at the same time, I think we can all appreciate each other's writing, so perhaps the product can come from different ways of thinking and meet at some middle ground. It probably already has.

    I get that thinking about all this stuff is helpful. Keep talking about it. But, also try to write the way you want to. Experiment with actual writing.

  10. @Michael - I know they always say you can't do _____ for an imagined ideal audience, but it's what I've always done, perhaps to my detriment. It's a huge aid in teaching, in my work on the radio, and in other endeavors, but perhaps a hindrance in at least my writing. It's how I instinctively approach everything I do, though, so I'm not sure yet how to untrain myself.

    Your comparison of analysis to describing a joke is thought-provoking. I'll mull that over some.

    @Domey - I agree with you for the most part. If it works in the short form, there must be a way to replicate it in the long form. Size does present a challenge, though, I think. It's one thing for a reader to have to wait until the end of a 3K story to understand and attach to the characters and the writing. It's another thing altogether for a reader to have to wait to the end of a 90K novel for that.

    So somehow I need to foreshadow that experience early on in the book.

    I like the idea of the middle ground. That might be both more reasonable and more attainable than crossing over.

    @Everyone - I'm about to embark on an experiment. I'll let you know how it goes.

    And thanks again, for the thoughts, keep them coming! :)

  11. Nevets - I think you said it. Too much analysis removes spontaneity, and that will show in your writing. You have to be yourself; it's the only way. And the way to find out the style that really is you is to write and write and write. It sounds to me as though what you do is a bit like writing something in, say, German, and then translating it back into English. Cut out the middle man and write as yourself. That way you will reach the right readers for your writing, and you and your readers will feel comfortable. (I've rather skimmed through the other comments as am writing in a hurry, so forgive me if I repeat what others - or you - have said!)

  12. Nevets you are over-analyzing. Remember what you recently told me? "Write what you want and see if others like it." I thought that was pretty straightforward advice. How about you?

  13. Nevets, you and I have discussed that we "see the movie" as we write the book. You see in stills - I see in action. Using that analagy, some of the most intriguing movies use deductive reasoning. They show you the big picture and then WHAM! they hit you with where did that come from? (but in a good way). Such as the Sixth Sense - you never saw the clues because they were weaved brilliantly into the big picture.

    I have read a lot of phychological suspense and the best books don't get bogged down in the nitty gritty details. The story moves fluidly with the suspense building. When it finally all comes together, the reader sometimes has to go back to find the hidden details. That's when the lightbulb goes off and the reader thinks, "Brilliant."

    Write in your way of thinking first and then go back and see where you can add the "hints" or little nuggets of detail that don't seem important at first, but in the end, make the story come to fruition. You are the only one that can tell your story and you have to use your voice. And frankly, as I've told you before, your voice is magical.

  14. @Frances - It's like an English speaker mentally conceiving a story in English but trying to put it on paper in German. At least, that's what it feels like. The comparison imprecise but gets the feeling across.

    One of the places things really breakdown is in timeline management, because the sequence of events is largely irrelevant to me. There is something of a causal spiral or an informative spiral, but that's not quite the same thing. So when I try to translate it... sheer brokenness.

    You're right. Somehow I need to get that middle man out of there.

    @Yvonne - Touche. :) Ouch, and appreciated. :)

    @Lori - Thanks, that discussion does help me put some of this into a useful frame of reference. There might be something there I can work with.

    And thank you so much for your kind words about my voice. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that! :)

  15. Nevets, this is very interesting, and I find it even more interesting that Scott and Domey don't always connect when talking about writing, but Domey and I do connect...I'm thinking I work more along the lines of Domey and you work more along the lines of Scott...and none of it is right or wrong.

    I think it's very important to write for yourself and what works for YOU, not everyone else. It wasn't until I wrote Cinders just for me that I realized how important and vital this is. It meant one HUGE, huge, HUGE thing to me after I'd released the book and started getting honest feedback: It didn't matter what anybody else said about the book, I was happy with it no matter what. This meant that if I had written it for others and received ANY feedback at all that seemed negative, I would be a much unhappier person today.

    I do think a middle ground is best because I did get some valuable feedback on the book before I put it out there, and I did listen to much of that feedback and change some things accordingly. Honestly, thought, it was only things I knew made the story better according to my original vision - not to please other people. Often, feedback is essential in this way because we sometimes can't see the forest for the trees. Scott has his agent. We have our beta or alpha readers. Others have their publishers and editors. The journey to publication is not a lone one by any means. That middle ground will be reached, I promise you, by the time you reach that point, or even after that point in the middle right before publication.

    Just don't let your desire for a large readership rule your writing. Scott is 100% right about you failing hard if you write for an audience so different from you. And, if as you say, most audiences ARE different from you, that leaves you with a smaller readership.

    I love Breanne Braddy's motto. It rings so true. I quote it to myself daily: "Woe is the writer who mounts their merit on the masses."

    Woe, indeed.

  16. @Michelle - I think it has to be a middle ground, and I'm trusting that I can find it in the end. I want to maintain my artistic integrity, but I also want to proceed as a professional and I can't bring myself to think audience is not some kind of consideration, but I'm trying to not let it be the primary.

    The thing is, I truly believe that writing is not just art, but it's communication. Part of how I approach communication -- and I tend to be pretty successful in most communication endeavors -- is by anticipating my audience and preparing my material in the way that will be most effective for them to receive it.

    I accept as intellectual fact the benefits of not writing for an audience, but I can't get my mind around how to communicate without preparing it for my audience.

    It's honestly crippling for me when I try to cut that audience factor out.

    I think the answer is somehow in, as I think Scott and maybe a couple others have said, writing for an audience of me's -- but I haven't been able to get that to work either, because that's really not communication.

    I've never even truly talked to myself in my entire life. When I "talk to myself," I'm always engaged in conversation with some conceptualized other. lol

  17. I can see your issues here. I think the key will lie in something you don't even know about until you just stumble across it, unfortunately. Yeah, I'm a big help...

  18. haha Yeah, you're probably right. Another way I need to be more like Scott. Seems like he's a gestalt deductive. I'm an intuitive deductive. So waiting around for the flash of insight to hit... unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unliked. lol

  19. Well, I understand about wanting to make things clear to an audience. I also have a weird brain, albeit, perhaps in a different way than yours. I've written many stories where the response was WTF? from readers, and I learned to write so that other people could understand it.

    But on the other hand, the reason I read is because it is as close as I can come to mind-reading. So I don't want to read just a formula, but to gain insight into a different thought process.

    One trick I play in struggling with the Please Others/Please Myself issue is to imagine giving the mss to a Me from a parallel Earth, who has all the same tastes but didn't happen to write the book.


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