Self Expression Vs. Self Examination

Why do we write? Or create? Or sing? Or any other art or craft?

The most obvious answer is to express ourselves. And I don’t think it’s a wrong answer, I certainly express myself a lot through my writing, or when I was vlogging, or any other creative endeavor that I’ve undertaken.  I can’t deny it’s one reason.

I think for at least the last year, my writing has shifted.  You’ll see some of what I mean in my posts in the last year, but I also mean in my fictional writing.  I think when it comes to my fictional writing, I’m writing more from a place of self examination.

You need to understand something about me.  I know who I am, perhaps for the first time in my life, I know who I am.  But I also know who I want to be, and so in the last year or so, my writing has been a way of me exploring and trying to find a connection from who I am, and who I want to be.

If I’m being honest, I’ve always had a good portion of self-examination in my writing, but I think it’s been more intentional, and hopefully deeper in the last year.

In the book that I self published a lot of it is self-examination.  For most of the short stories, I picked a situation and asked myself “how would you react?” or “how would you like to react?” or “how would you hope you wouldn’t react?” and I picked the most interesting option to me and dove into it.  With stories about nude portrait projects for school, and bank robberies, and orgies.

I’ve written a lot of short stories since, including one about a man having to figure out how to break devastating news to his daughter, which feels perhaps less exciting, but was much deeper character work, and also was a dive into some of my own biggest fears in a much more real way.

Currently, I’m working on a novel, and it’s about a father and son on a road trip, and what it means to be a man, and a father, and a son.  It’s been a very strange process, because I had thought up the idea a few years ago, before becoming a father, and then started outlining while my wife was pregnant, started writing in those early months of fatherhood, continued through being laid off, and becoming a stay at home father, and moving away from my own parents.  There is still a lot to be written but so far throughout the process I’ve been given huge windows into different aspects of the questions I was hoping to raise.

I’ve also been working on a time-travel blog, which explores my own history, from around the time my parents met until the end of my childhood (I’ve been jokingly referring to it as a time-travel autobiography), but through that I’ve started to force myself into the perspective of an outsider looking in on my life.

I understand that the idea of self examination as an art form can be hugely self indulgent.  If I go back and watch my old vlogs, I can see it at its worse.  Thinking that just I was doing something deep, when really I was just aiming a camera at myself while I lived, and I burnt out on it in a few different ways.

So how do we determine what self examination has merit?

Honestly, it’s hard to decide, but what I have determined is self examination that is meaningful, that helps us to determine what is good about ourselves, what needs to be improved about ourselves, and helps us to progress forward.  The problem ‘self examination’ that I was doing by vlogging was that I was documenting my ‘life’ without any real questioning.  I was trying to show off how ‘cool’ my life is, and my life is incredible, but not necessarily ‘cool.’

There is this honesty missing when I was making those videos.  I wasn’t showing my own short-comings, I wasn’t really even acknowledging them, where as in my writing (my fiction writing anyway) I scrutinize myself intensely.  I fight in my writing to not make the character closest to myself be clearly right.  Even when I’m looking at the character and going ‘well, he’s right’ I have to force myself to realize why the others don’t, and that’s not something I ever had to do with the vlog, and so it wasn’t the right format for me.

Some of the best self examining artists, do exist in that format though, and they’re really interesting.  Sure, most vloggers seem unnaturally positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t honest in how they depict themselves and their own flaws.  Look at someone like Casey Neistat.  Casey used to vlog every day, and still vlogs regularly, Casey covers a wide-variety of topics and ideas on his YouTube channel.  Casey is at least 50% of the time the topic of his videos, and there is something much deeper in most of them than just aiming a camera at himself.  Casey tells us about how he risked his life climbing mountains, and how he feels about it in retrospect; he tells us about how his wife and him go to counciling; about his medical issues with his knee, and how he’s been hit by cars while on motorcycles.  Through all of these stories, Casey isn’t just repeating something for us that is by rote, and that doesn’t affect him, he archives all of his footage, and when he tells us these stories, he goes through and meticulously finds the footage of them, and pieces it together.  Now don’t get me wrong, there are some of his videos which are much more the typical ‘fluff’ piece with no real introspection going, but Casey is often diving into self examination and exploration.

One of my favorite comedians, someone I’ve talked about on this page a lot lately, is Bo Burnham, who also started out on YouTube.  Bo Burnham’s work is simultaneously inward looking, and looking at a system he sees himself as a symptom of.  Bo’s self examination can be a bit bleak, and perhaps even troubling to watch, but it’s because he self scrutinizes, and is open to a level that I personally don’t know that I ever could be.

As I’ve become more interested in the idea of self examination as a motivation to create, my tastes have started to shift.  I still love George Carlin, who I think was one of the ultimate “self express-ers,” but I’ve also started to value the opposite.  While Carlin himself was rarely personal in his comedy, the ideas and concepts that he often delved into can easily be applied to self examination.  Observational comedy, especially when it is about huge societal norms and taboos, is self examination on something of a macro level, and I think as I re-listen to his comedy, I’ve begun to see that as well.

One of Carlin’s routines, that has often made me think, about the idea of self-examination on a macro level, was in “Gay Lib” a track on his 1974 album, Toledo Window Box.  In the track, he says “Is it normal? Normal, what’s normal? Let’s see if you’re standing in a room, stripped and it’s dark, and you’re hugging a person and loving and rubbing them up and down and suddenly the light goes on, and it’s the same sex, you’ve been trained to go ‘AHHHHH!’  …But it felt ok!”  What I like about this type of analysis, is that essentially, Carlin is telling us something that (at the time) was probably true of a significant majority of people, and it’s something that was created by society as a group, but it extends to individuals.

When I’ve looked at myself, when I’ve tried to break down what I know about myself, and who I am, and who I want to be, it is typical that I find some of these society imposed behaviors and thinking in my own head, as everyone who’s being honest should.  I’ve written before about how I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the word ‘fuck’ but that doesn’t mean that the taboo of hearing a child, or an old person say it doesn’t give me an involuntary response that I don’t have when they use other words.  Hell, I’ve been saying ‘fuck’ for twenty years and yet I’m still shocked and amused a significant portion of the time when I hear someone saying it.  That’s ok, I’m not complaining, but I have to think about it, and reconcile that just because I have an immediate reaction, doesn’t mean that I have to act on it.

I think a lot of art, must come from examining the rift, that most of us seem to have, between who we really are, and who we want to be.  While we may admire people whom we think are confident and steadfast, certainly we must find it more interesting when someone is conflicted, and conflict within one’s self must come from this type of self examination.

Literature, is teeming with examples, and it’s perhaps because we’re able to understand how deep introspection can occur in written word vs in visual art.  Authors seem to constantly be diving into themselves, and while there may be some level of narcissism in that pursuit, it must also be the idea of trying to further understand.  The Old Man and the Sea was written by an aging Ernest Hemingway about an old man retired in Cuba, and one last adventure; Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi not only telling the story of her people throughout a regime change but also herself and her family (although literally in this example); even Slaughterhouse-Five with its aliens and time travel is about a man trying to cope with the atrocities that he saw, atrocities Vonnegut himself saw.  I think these examples probably wouldn’t be categorized as ‘navel gazing,’ which is what many of us think of when we look at introspective art, but perhaps that’s because it’s so good.

So my goal, is to embrace the introspection, but to attempt to be smart about it; to attempt to not let myself fall into the trap of simply self-satisfying, but to pull out of myself the best person and the best writing possible.

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