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Robert Minto

The Torture of Reading Yourself

Once upon a time, I genuinely enjoyed rereading myself. Homeschooled, unexposed to any serious literature fresher than the nineteenth century, I harbored a prose-crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same labored syntax could be found in my sentences, the same archaic diction, the same reliance on periodicity, apostrophe, and the indefinite pronoun. By contrast to my anachronistic affectations, everything I read in newspapers and magazines seemed inferior, simplistic, discordant. For the brief years of my naivety, I really thought I might be something special as a writer.

Then I discovered the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spent the next decade cleaning the cobwebs off my verbs and dusting my lines for commas. Learned not to sound like a breathless nymph from the era of corsets and hysteria who had picked up her diction from the Authorized Version. And I really read.

After you’ve really read, you don’t think you’re special anymore. With Thomas Browne and Joan Didion and William Gass and Samuel Johnson and Samuel Delany and Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot and Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald all living in your head, looking over your shoulder, sniffing at your choices — well, you know the truth.

Still, I never thought I’d get this deep into self-loathing. Lately it’s physically painful to read something a month old. I saw my last Open Letters essay featured in A&L Daily and instead of delight I felt a shudder of horror — I had almost accidentally clicked the link and put myself face to face with the gibbering abortions of my own brain. It’s bad. You don’t even realize.

Sometimes it’s worse than others. After a few pints or a single stiff drink, I can just about make it through something I’ve written in the last year without choking on my own bile. But in the full clarity of the morning, after my coffee, in peak mental form, I would rather drag steel wool across the jelly of my own eyes than face those limping phrases.

Aha! — Subjectivity, you say. But nope, that’s not it. I’ve tested this. The ends of Orwell’s essays and the beginnings of Austen’s novels are just as ego-meltingly wonderful in any state of mind. It’s only the palatability of my own sentences that varies with my appetite, temperature, hydration, and the dilation of my pupils.

Supposedly this sort of wretchedness is a good sign. Disliking your own words means you haven’t reached the acme of your powers of expression. We can hope. But isn’t it also possible that ability and taste are out of joint? The strength of my disgust and admiration for the prose of others used to give me confidence that I possessed some kind of ear or ghostly sense, rare of its kind, for proportion and euphony, line and color. I can hear meter easily and my teachers always praised my scansion and I can appreciate le mot juste. But the repeated disappointments of my own writing make me increasingly nervous that fineness of perception does not endow skill as a matter of course.

But there’s no giving up. Mere failure can’t stop a man besotted with Calliope. You just keep studying the masonry of syntax, the husbandry of diction, the dance steps of style; you just keep learning how to trawl for metaphors and plant those parallels fathoms-deep, unobtrusive, and resonant. And you read. And you suffer in the name of unachievable perfection.

Me, having just been forced to read myself.

Me, having just been forced to read myself.

Comments

It’s interesting that you should write this. I have been entertaining thoughts along a similar line of late. I look at my critical writing a little differently—I have published some pieces that I am genuinely proud of this year and even the work I know is less solid surprises me when I re-read it. But I do have a rule that I never read a submission after the approval of edits until it is published.

When it comes to my personal essay work it is a different matter. I have recently received two books that contain my work and I have been unable to read either piece. One is an essay I wrote over two years ago. The other is a parable of sorts that I wrote earlier this year. The latter is included in the magnificent Seagull Books catalogue and a number of other contributors have reproduced their work on their blogs. I cannot reproduce, let alone re-read, my piece at this time.

In my case, I’m not certain that it is a dissatisfaction with my words, but with what I have allowed myself to share. The release I had hoped for in writing honestly (with firm boundaries, mind you) has not come. It feels odd that in a year in which my (mostly unpaid) writing career has taken off I find myself burned out and drained of words. I have even stepped back on some masthead commitments that had given me great pride.

I wonder what drives us to write when writing well is a slow, painful process, and its comforts so vague and fleeting.

Robert Minto says:

I think my self-dissatisfaction is more aesthetic and less moral than yours (and to that extent mine is more frivolous, I’m sure), partly because what drives me to write is an activity- and medium-focused passion — I’ve wanted to spend my life tapping away at keyboards from the first glimmer of ambition in childhood — while you have always struck me as someone who writes because of the press of actual things to say. As you say here, you write in hope of the release that comes from honest expression. My motivations are not so noble… But it’s interesting to hear that even someone who writes with your strength of purpose experiences this kind of disillusion.

It is interesting that you see my writing that way. My Minor Literature[s] essay is certainly the most honest, raw piece I have ever have and, possibly ever will, write. It was conceived as an introduction to set the stage for a longer philosophical inquiry into existential questions about being and inauthenticity. I hope that continues, but a load of loss and grief has been dumped into my life in recent months. Yet, having written a number of essays in which I address my identity openly this year, I am aware that it in no way eases my alienation in “real life.” However, I do think I may have found a fictional means of addressing some of the experiential and philosophical themes of interest to me, so I’ll see where that leads.

I have, in truth, always wanted to be a writer, and an ability to write well has been critical in my educational and professional career. But I abandoned all hope of creative writing when I was in my late teens or early twenties. Of course, I did poke away at ideas, but my own identity confusion was a persistent barrier. Once I transitioned I became very closeted and did not want to write in any way that would reveal my past. It is not until the last two years when I’ve been off work on a disability leave, that I finally decided I had to write… that is, I realized that until I got some of this stuff out of the way, it would continue to silence me.

What is perhaps even more pleasantly surprising to me, is my “success,” such as it is, as a critical writer. That has happened very quickly over the past year. Blogging, where I cautiously tested the waters for a while, has been essential to gaining confidence. And I can promise that there are some blog posts, not to mention some tentative early reviews, that I may never look at again!

On the other hand – the older hand – I think “older” may be the important word – I often reread Wuthering Expectations to see what I thought about Elizabeth Gaskell or whatever. Usually I come away thinking “That sounds plausible.” Occasionally, “I wonder what I meant by that?”

The Babel essay was quite good, by the way.

Robert Minto says:

Thanks.

An aspect of this phenomenon that I sacrificed for the aesthetic effect of a unified point in this post — oh, the irony — is that farther out, say more than a year back, I find my writing perfectly tolerable. This undoubtedly has something to do with my sense of disassociation from a past self. To borrow your words, when I reread things written a long time past, I often do so “to see what I thought” — and I’m often pleasantly surprised. (My favorite nonfiction thing I’ve ever written was an essay on Reinhold Niebuhr from 2015.) But do you feel similarly sanguine about what you wrote yesterday, or a week ago, or last month? And the interaction between approval of a distant self and disgust at an immediate self is a feeling of decline, a suspicion that one writes worse than one used to, despite a great deal of effort to develop in the opposite direction.

Oh sure, what I wrote yesterday was awful, barely coherent, pasted to the internet only to get rid of it, allowing the possibility, however unlikely, that what I write today will be if not better at least free of that other nonsense.

“the gibbering abortions of my own brain” – I really like this one, think gonna quote it somewhere. It’s normal to be freaked out by your writing, similar to the unpleasant effect of listening to a recording of your own voice.

[…] (perhaps unreasonable) obsession with becoming a better writer often interrupts my reading. I’ll be jarred out of an […]

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