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Let Me Express Myself–It’s So Much Faster Than Regular Shipping

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Last week I started teaching a course that will run from 6 to 9 on Tuesday nights for eight weeks, part of an accelerated degree program for adults. 

Teaching adults has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that they’re serious about what they do, and this term what I’m teaching is “comp and lit.”  This is what the whole world called “Freshman English” before the advent of “composition” courses.  We’ve got a text book full of short stories, poems and plays chosen by somebody whose tastes are largely limited to the obvious and the mediocre and eight weeks to get across things like narrative voice, unreliable narrators and extended metaphors.

The downside to this is that it’s something of a haul out to the site, and it’s late.  I get home late, I get to bed later, and then I either oversleep in the morning or get up on time and feel catatonic all day.

This morning I needed to get up, because it’s the Fourth of July, and even in a year when I’m not doing anything special, I have my younger son to think about.  HIS idea for the day was to walk up to Main Street and watch the parade, so I got up early and puttered around to make sure he took a bottle of water and all that kind of thing.

Then I put on Haydn and tried to read.

I’m still reading the Perry Miller first volume, so that didn’t work out so well.  You have to be awake to read that thing.

In th emeantime, I feel nearly obsessed with a conversation that went on in class yesterday. 

At one point in a convoluted discussion of James Joyce’s “Araby” and Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” and after trying an experiment where I had them read Hemingway’s very short story “Hills Like White Elephants” and explain it to me–okay, that was interesting–I asked them why they thought Hemingway had written that story.

Then I broadened it to:  why does any writer write any story? 

Looking back on it, I think I was expecting them to give me practical answers:  writers write to make money, for instance, or to get famous, or that kind of thing.

What I got instead was a near universal insistance on:  writers write to express themselves.

The one exception was a woman from South America, and she was only half an exception.  Writers write, she said because some people have so much imagination in them, they have to get it out.

That is, actually, a pretty good answer now that I look at it.  I certainly know that feeling, that the fiction never stops, that it becomes part of your head.

Unfortunately, when I probed further, she, too, though the point was “expressing your personality.”

No, I am, I will admit, something of an old fogey, but I found this absolutely astonishing.

In the first place, I have  no idea what “express yourself” actually means, and I’m not sure if my students do. 

The idea seems to be that you have a self–so far, so good–and that one of its imperatives is to make itself public and known to the world.

They confidently feel that all people at all times feel this, and that this is an impulse natural to human beings.

And, of course, on one level, I can see this myself, sort of. 

We can see around us, as I speak, a lot of concerted and sometimes frantic attempts at what I’d call “individuation,” meaning attempts to show that we are different from the people around us, that we are  not part of the mass.

Some of these are actually attempts at defining our group memberships, to say that we are part of THIS group and NOT THAT one.

In those cases, though, I’m not sure that whatever is being express is really a self. 

It’s also unclear to me where it is this self is coming from, or where it is its impulses are coming from.

The discussion made it sound as if we are all born with a set of desires and impulses that are just there, unaffected by culture or upbringing or anything else at all.

I’m sure if I’d gotten into that particular discussion, they would have denied that these impulses were entirely causeless–or maybe not.  It was hard to tell where they were trying to go with this. 

The idea–that people need to “express themselves”–was so thoroughly taken as a given, so completely perceived as impossible to challenge, that they had a hard time thinking of it as anything but just obviously and unquestionably true.

But the fact is that the idea that we all need to “express ourselves”  is a very new one.  It was not a part of the Medieval world, or the ancient one.  The Victorians would have recognized it, but they would have dismissed it as the delusions of the romantics.

There were some questions I could have asked last night but didn’t, and wished I had.

One would have been just why they thought a self would need to be “expressed.”  Why would a self want to do that?  What would a self get from such a process that it would find worthwhile?

I suppose it’s too late in the history of this particular culture to ask if it wouldn’t be more of a negative for a self to express itself–if it wouldn’t be better to keep itself private and intact rather than send the secrets of its soul into the public world to be mashed about by anybody who wanted to.

In the last several years, most of my students–adult, remedial, regular–have had very little comprehension of a sense of privacy or why anybody would have one. 

Life is, for them, a public event, and a life lived outside such publicity is like not really living at all. 

Still, I think I can say with some certainty that most of the writers I have known, or have read about, have not been interested in “expressing themselves.” 

In fact, most of the writers I’ve known who have declared that their principle interest is in self-expression have been very bad writers, and my guess is that they’d probably also be very bad composers and very bad painters. 

Maybe that’s the explanation for the mountains of really bad art that we see all around us these days.

The writers I’ve known have been motivated by a lot of things–politics, pain, love, ideas, ideals, history–but almost never by a squishy subjective need to “express themselves.”

Expressing themselves is what children do–and even they don’t do it if they’re not being encouraged by their kindergarten teachers.

The Haydn is done.  I’d better go find something for lunch before Greg gets back home from the parade.

Written by janeh

July 4th, 2012 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Let Me Express Myself–It’s So Much Faster Than Regular Shipping'

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  1. This is an interesting post for me. When I read your students’ response, I thought, ‘well, of course.’ But as I continued reading I think I see how I interpreted that response differently than you did. By ‘express themselves’ I assumed your students were saying that people write because they have ideas they want to share and discuss and understand. Those ideas might be about any of the things you mentioned – relationships, politics, emotion, values. But I assume your students are saying that those ideas are what people are expressing. From your response, I think I must be misunderstanding your students.

    I am not a writer. I do, however, write a little blog. I started it when I was on sabbatical a couple of years ago, partly in response to a dare and partly to impose discipline on myself during a largely unstructured period of time. I continued to write it after my sabbatical ended precisely because I have ideas and thoughts that I am trying to understand myself. In my thought process, there comes a point where I need to say words out loud. In the absence of another person to listen to those words and respond, I write them down.

    The process of writing words helps me to understand myself, the ideas that I’m trying to express, other perspectives that I gain from any number of sources – news, friends, other blogs. Mostly, it helps me attempt to understand my students, my colleagues, myself as a teacher. It helps me see when I’m being monumentally stupid or short-sighted, and seems to be helping me understand life, what it means, why we’re here. I know that introverts are able to do all that processing internally. Extroverts, though, have a more difficult time doing that. I can process a lot internally, but there comes a point where ‘saying it’ is what helps me really internalize the truth or the lesson. It helps me learn.

    judy

    4 Jul 12 at 1:10 pm

  2. Two issues: writers’ motivation and self-expression.

    I think we can disprove the notion that writers are so full of imagination that it overflows onto the pages. I could name names. In fact I will: John Jakes, Otis Adelbert Kline, Ron Goulart and Publius Vergilius Maro. (What? You thought shameless rip-offs were new?) Of course, Leigh Brackett, H.P. Lovecraft and Jane Austen were writing about as young as they could hold a pen, so overflowing imagination is true in some instances. I think you can reasonably ask why Author X wrote–and sometimes even why he wrote Book Y or Short Story Z. But “why authors write” is too broad, and is only answerable like all human activity–some because they had to, some because they thought they ought to, some because they took pleasure in it and some because they thought it would get them soemthing.

    Self-expression, though: We’ve had to work very hard to produce that answer. We’ve pared away everything else to do it: a God that loves and forgives might be left, but not one that commands and judges, nor a country, race or class which impose duties–not even an objective reality which takes precedence over our feelings and opinions. For those who are truly in and of the modern world, there is only our precious inner selves and the observers. And the modernist is Ayn Rand’s second-hander to the life: nothing counts–nothing is valid–unless it is observed. You can’t be warm, dry well-fed, loved and educated: you have to be seen to be these things, and even being scorned by millions is better than being content by oneself.

    Of course one writes for self-expression. If no one knows you exist, you don’t.

    I’ll be gone for a while. If anyone needs me, I might be in the 18th or 19th Centuries, but look first in the Hyborean Age or Middle-Earth. Because this is no place for my mother’s son, and Tolkien was right: the people most concerned with escapism are jailers.

    robert_piepenbrink

    4 Jul 12 at 3:30 pm

  3. There’s a bit of conflict in definitions here. There’s expression of the self, what and who one is, and expression of what the self wants to say, talk about, is interested in.

    The second is what most actual writers do. The first is what the students are thinking of (I suspect) and they tend to conflate it with the second. This conflation is the reason people think that an author’s characters always express the author’s own opinions on morals, politics, religion, etc.

    To this group of students, living life in public is what one does. Ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, universal surveillance, and TV shows like Jersey Shore tell them that privacy (or dignity) is an obsolete concept. Self-expression in the sense of distinguishing oneself from the herd is itself done in ways that follow the herd, tattoos, piercings, hair, clothing, and accessories.

    Writing to express themselves is what one does on a blog, or, heaven help us, Twitter. To them, that IS self-expression. Or crapping in public, a distinction without a difference. Novels are only, like, you know, really long tweets.

    Consider what reading from this kind of assumption DOES to the understanding of fiction. Hemingway wasn’t writing to paint a word picture or induce an image or emotion in the reader, or to preserve a snapshot of a world forever. He was expressing himself, for the purposes of letting the rest of us know who he was, that he existed.

    It’s so limiting. So flat. So boring. Bleh.

    But there you go. An entire generation who has never grown past, “Hey mom, LOOK AT ME!!!”

    Lymaree

    4 Jul 12 at 5:09 pm

  4. It’s not enough to express yourself, your expressions must be received with praise – or at least polite acceptance. After all, since it’s your soul on display, any criticism or questioning is inappropriate (since no one but you knows your own soul, or at least in the minds of those who never heard ‘know thyself’ or got the idea it might be difficult. And it shows nasty prejudice – maybe even bigotry. What a recipe for superficial boring reading!

    Cheryl

    4 Jul 12 at 6:31 pm

  5. I agree with Lymaree. I really don’t think it bears any more profound analysis than that with the Alphabetical Generations.

    Mique

    4 Jul 12 at 6:32 pm

  6. “expression of what the self wants to say, talk about, is interested in.”

    Yes, but if what the self is mostly interested in is itself–well, you’re due for a lot of novels about writers and academics–or, as we say today, mainstream literary fiction with a shot at the Booker Prize.

    One of the nice things about adventure fiction is that only official villains and monsters believe the universe revolves around them and their feelings–well, after Achilles, anyway. (Does anyone else remember Richard Powell’s WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY?)

    robert_piepenbrink

    4 Jul 12 at 7:15 pm

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