Are You a Selfish Writer?

I admit it. I’m a selfish writer. And I’m here to argue that selfishness in writing isn’t actually bad—sometimes, it can be very, very good.

How are writers selfish? Writers are capable of playing nicely. We share reviews of new books, guest blogging spots, critiques, and sometimes, on rare occasion, we even lend our books. What about a writer makes him or her inherently selfish?

And a Selfish Writer Is…?

CriticVs.Shakespeare copyWhen I was a child, I had normal childish difficulties in empathizing with others’ feelings and points of view. While I understood cause and effect pretty well, I was consistently processing things, even negative things that happened to others, through their effects on me. For example, if I accidentally kicked a foul ball in kickball and my team was banished back to the bleachers, instead of feeling bad for my team, I’d… watch (there’s no other word for it) how a jeer from a teammate would hit me, shrink me, make my face turn red. Almost in a disaffected way, I became a chronicler of my brain.

Always being an introverted sort, I did eventually learn to empathize with others as I grew older and more mature. But there was always a separate bit of brain that was entirely focused on how any given thing—even things that affected other people, like the passing away of a grandparent—affected me, affected my emotional state or my physical one. I mentally logged the way those experiences affected me like a trucker filling out his travel books. There’s still a little part of mind that watches myself on closed-circuit TV at all times.

Eventually I figured out that internal bit of separation was a writing thing. That’s what I mean by being a selfish writer.

Is That Bad?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

One of the main points of writerdom is to establish a connection with readers through shared experiences. Writers make readers feel understood, like they’re not alone, like there’s at least one person out there who shares the same feelings. Those reams and reams of logged experiences I mentioned? I draw on those as a way to connect with others when I write. Since I am so intimately familiar with how my life experiences affected me (just me, just one person out of billions), when I put them down on paper, very often, I get others who say, “I’m the same way! Thank you for pointing it out; I thought I was the only one who did/felt/thought that.”

Shared experience: It’s a good thing.

Apply It in Your Writing

Drawing on the ultra-specific memories you have of events and people that affected you deeply is utterly fascinating, both for you and for the reader. Instead of describing the emotions of characters, saying, “Adam felt [this way],” remember how you reacted (that closed-circuit TV perspective) when something similarly affecting happened to you. Turn the CCTV on your characters (or in memoir, on your literary self), and often, the effect is like a mirror: Readers find themselves staring back from the pages of your books.

And that? Is one of the best things.

But It Can Be a Little Bit Awkward

Writers get unfairly painted as a shy bunch with no people skills or social graces in evidence, and despite how easy it is to draw on that trope, I haven’t found it to be especially true in actual life. In fact, I hesitate to say all writers have a self-directed CCTV like the one I describe above, but… well, some of us do. I find that people who are very in tune with their own emotions can sometimes be a bit blithely insensitive to others’. At least, this has been certainly (and unintentionally) true in my life, and I keep that detail as a cautionary footnote when I’m out and about and not in front of my computer screen.

On second thought, socially awkward isn’t always a bad place to be. It gives you a great vantage point from which to learn about people, people who might someday show up in your work.

What Do You Think?

Are you a selfish writer? Is that always necessarily a bad thing? Share your experiences in the comments.