How Far Is Too Far? The (Alleged) Crime of Self-Indulgent Writers

Whether we’re writing memoir, fantasy, young adult or literary fiction, there’s one judgment we writers recoil from more than any other. One thing we can’t stand to be called. One thing that makes us cringe to even think we might be approaching it.

It’s the crime of self-indulgence.

What constitutes a self-indulgent writer? Is it someone who includes too much world-building and back story simply because they’re interested in following every thread? Or is it someone who becomes too emotional when writing pieces of their autobiography and comes off as melodramatic?

Writerly self-indulgence can show up under many guises, and some readers are more sensitive to it than others. But it doesn’t have to hold the power of the big, bad boogeyman that most writers make it out to be.

Here’s the thing: Writers are self-indulgent people.

That’s just the way we’re wired. It comes along with being an artist. We think it’s imperative to commit large chunks of time to examining our inner world, writing our findings down, and then sharing that information with as many people as possible. This falls into an entirely different life-purpose arena than, say, being a nurse or a fireman.

Yes, we want our stories to help people if possible. But the number one priority is really to get that story out of our head. Because if we don’t, we’ll go crazy.

By necessity, writers have to employ a certain level of selfishness in our lives to keep ourselves sane.

However, we dread the thought of that “center on the self” attitude showing up in our writing. We don’t want people to think we’re whiny. Or boring. Or rambling. We want readers to see themselves in us, and in our stories. We want to engage their genuine interest. And most of all, we want them to keep reading.

But to get to that sweet spot, we have to travel through self-indulgence first. To mine the pure gold of our creativity, we have to fully embrace ourselves as writers.

We have to use our selfish, obsessive, intense, inner-world examining tendencies to explore the very depths of what’s inside our head, and then to bring it out into the light.

This is why I always encourage my clients to go all out in that first sloppy draft. Write everything down. All of it. The embarrassing stuff, the gross stuff, the dark stuff. If writing 300 pages about the layout of the town on an alien planet helps you get to the gold, then do it.

Because not everything makes it out of the first draft.

That’s what editing is for.

During the editing process your inner critic will come out to play, and that’s the time that critical voice will actually be a help to you. When you have all the pieces in front of you, you can cut, rearrange and revise to your heart’s content. You can soften any whininess and streamline the obnoxiously long passages into something readable. You can look at sections of your manuscript and decide, “Wow, I was having a really bad day when I wrote that—DELETE.”

But until you get to that editing stage, let it all hang out. Whine, ramble, scream, and vomit all over the page.

Think of it this way: If you never indulge yourself, how are you ever supposed to indulge the reader?

If you liked this article, you might want to check out:

How to Know If You’re Editing Too Soon

How to (Finally) Finish Your Novel

Stop Re-Reading, Start Moving Forward

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