You are not Your Work

In last week’s post we looked at some ideas of image, identity, and the importance and impact of labels and claims to labels. It can take a lot of courage, a lot of gumption, to call oneself a writer when all there is to show for the efforts put in are the drops of blood on your keyboard and the frayed hopes that still hang pinned to your bedroom wall. The mantle is there to be enrobed though, and the struggle we know and feel is hardly a new one. This week, then, we’ll connect those notions to the work itself.

There are two sides to this coin (as with all coins – an odd saying, a linguistic relic, to be sure): obscurity and misunderstanding. What is furthermore interesting about this situation is the way these two blur. Friedrich Nietzsche provides a nice example of both as he was largely ignored during his own lifetime (self-pubbing, as was the norm given printing methods and the publishing industry at the time (and will become the norm again I’d wager given current trajectories), his letters reveal deep and frequent complaints about his perception that his books simply weren’t wanted), and at times courted being misread by purposely using obscurities and subterfuges. This is especially clear in his many references to “masks” found in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886), which oddly enough was written to be a more systematic – and hence clearer, one would think – portrayal of the concepts brought to life in his immediately preceding Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883-1885; Part Four was added much later). No one, of course, would call Nietzsche obscure now, although he is probably still largely misunderstood. Martin Buber’s books, especially I and Thou, followed a similar trajectory but in his case I think the misunderstandings are a result of pure difficulty of prose rather than any employment of literary masks. In our own times we can perhaps point to Slavoj Žižek, who has yet been fortunate enough to see the world’s wheel turn on his life’s oeuvre while he is still able to enjoy it. For many that wheel never turns.

Say though that it does, that one finds oneself the recipient of attention, of criticism and critiques, and that it is negative, unrepresentative, inaccurate – those are barbs that can hurt, personally and deeply. What is most important to keep in mind for all of us who create, I think, is that whatever “we” are or take ourselves to be, there is a line to be drawn between that and what we produce. Our works naturally do reflect our personhoods in being the results of what we do, but the step from there to who we are is a very large one however easy it is to overlook. To be read is a great privilege, especially in these times of internet-driven gleeful imbecility and ten-second attention spans, yet the fact remains that even those who do read will often read superficially, and this is perhaps no more the case than amongst mainstream voices who assume that everyone is or wants to be mainstream too. Consider, for another historical example, the 18th century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who hid revolutionary musical techniques within standardized styles and was nevertheless still attacked for being too different – and then for being too establishment. There is no pleasing everyone, and much of the time, it can seem, there is no pleasing anyone. This is not a bitter pill to swallow though for it need not be swallowed at all. I am who I take myself to be, and what I have made is what I have made – no more and no less. It is not “me” unless I choose to invest self-defining and self-shaping elements into it, and this is even more so the case with fiction wherein the voices speak (at least ostensibly) for themselves and their own outlooks, goals, motivations, what have you. To confuse a writer with their characters, whether first person or third, is a silly and childish mistake to make despite its unfortunate commonness. We who create know better, although it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves of that. Here’s to remembering, and to the resolve to keep at it.


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