How to Write about Something other than Yourself

Long story short: you can’t. All writing will always be about yourself. This is inevitable because you can’t put enough distance between you and what you’re writing about. There will always be a thorough influence of the hand that types away and that influence will be irresistibly you. The self is like a window, the only portal in which ideas come and go because there is no other outlet other than you. From there, thoughts are siphoned in and out of the window, uniquely shaped by you. The content of the house may be brought in from various exotic places, but the way the world views these things will be through that window. Our souls are a house with a locked door that nobody enters, our windows the only means of expression. People are only able to peer in, never able to reach in. Expression is but mere estimation of the contents of your soul by the outside world, nothing more, nothing less. Words, music, cooking, acting, dancing. Photos. We invest a lot in communicating effectively precisely because it’s all the world gets to see of us. 

I title my post as such because it is still possible to write about yourself, yet write about something other than yourself. In the process of writing what you realise is that a lot of experiences are shared. I don’t think I can stress enough this simple fact that everything that can already be experienced has probably been experienced in vast degrees, in vast conditions, many unfathomable to you and I. We simply cannot imagine what is out there, the completeness of it all. And yet we exist. Why? It is not that we exist to forge new frontiers or to push the boundaries of human experience. I think that we exist despite that. We exist to take these already experienced feelings and situations and live them out in various combinations that in turn make us unique, not through what we feel but in the order, context, and timing of what we feel. Every feeling and experience has been had, but the specific combination and sequence of the two makes us unique. To write about it all makes our writing intolerably about us, but at the same time, about everyone that has ever felt what you’ve felt, even though they’ve felt these in other situations.

So in essence writing is all about a reshuffling of feelings and fears and actions and motivations, all of which have been gone through in some way through history. When you write about yourself, there will be space for someone to relate to your struggles. Our human experiences, vast and different as they may be, are so diverse that of any two people, at least a few instances can be related to. Many times it is the feeling of love and loss. Many people are familiar with the warmth and the void. Sometimes it’s soccer. Sometimes it’s serving the nation. I don’t know. But these are just happy accidents that occur time and time again. For I believe that writing will always be about yourself, that it is not an act of selflessness at all. Writing, to me is the single most selfish thing anyone can do. Because as I’ve mentioned above, all writing will be about yourself, even of you try to morph your narrative to fit a more universal, mainstream audience it is still your desire, it is still your own agenda being pushed forth to be relatable or what not and so in a more convoluted and indirect sense, the act of writing will still be about you.

What then makes writing less about yourself is not the writer but the reader. It is up to the reader to pick up a text and make it into his or her own narrative, find something to relate to and cling on to it. When you read someone’s work, you face the problem where you are unable to put yourself in their shoes, at least not fully. It will always be a half size off at best, if you’re lucky you escape with a few blisters. It’s never a perfect fit, but that’s the beauty of being a reader. You adapt, hobble along, finally settling for a narrative you can be happy with. And that’s the beauty of writing for me, that your own selfish stories get interpreted in the reader’s own selfish ways and an agreement is made. The writer takes his own baggage and lays it out, the reader takes the bits of it that fit him or her best and go along. It seems like a friendly exchange but it is all very self-obesessed, all very self-motivated. But it works. Everyday I am amazed that despite our frailties and short attention spans, this arrangement works.

From that tiny window that the world views your soul, something beautiful is happening: the world is looking at your soul and reinventing it in their own terms. The world sees your attempts at delivering a message and so in turn fragments that salient thought and turns it subjective, splashes it about a wide canvas Jackson Pollock style. 

So how do you write about something other than yourself? You can’t. But you can depend on the person who reads your work to make it about themselves. And in that way writing will always survive: turned essential due to the raw human need to be heard, scrutinized, understood. And boy is it more beautiful for that.

3 thoughts on “How to Write about Something other than Yourself

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/video/2012/apr/03/ian-mcewan-a-level-set-text-video

    When Ian McEwan helped his son to do an A-Level essay about his novel “Enduring Love”, hilarity ensued. McEwan’s help in interpreting his own words somehow didn’t impress his son’s teacher very much, and so his son got a low mark. Haha.

    Around the field of history, for example, there are some who regard all historical writing as literature. This might offend the sensibilities of serious historians who put in a lot of hard research work but the truth is, once a manuscript passes from galleys to print, it is out of the hands of the writer and inside the minds’ eyes of all who read the work. And these minds may not even be of the time of the writer, as the written word has a tendency to outlive the author, if fame smiles upon said author the way she has upon Herodotus and Homer.

    So you will have the over-interpretive literature master who ascribes the “authorial voice to an object as a representation of temptation” when really, the author just happens to like chocolate. Who is even right by this point in time? If you are an A-Levels student who needs to make the grade, of course your teacher is always right. Even if Dad wrote the words.

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  2. Pingback: How to Write about Something other than Yourself — justinnonng | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

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