Ask Me Anything: What’s the line between experimental and self-indulgent?

Chris Beausang asks:

Could be a difficult one — what’s the line between self-indulgence and ‘experimental’ when writing? How do you encourage avant-garde/weird stuff in a creative writing course or do you?

This is a good question, and important for writers to think about. Self-indulgence, according to Merriam-Webster, is “excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims.” I think writing becomes self-indulgent when it is solely about self-expression or about demonstrating virtuosity in technique.

Self-expression is a good reason to write. But it’s not a reason to expect people to read our work. Writing that’s only about self-expression — about pouring our thoughts and feelings onto the page — can come off as interior monologue without a filter; as incoherent stream-of-consciousness.

“Experimental” means using a new way of doing or thinking about something. In writing, the experiment can lie in the topic, the style, or the structure of the work. If you’re going to experiment — and come up with something that’s genuinely new, not just new to you — you need to know what has come before. What forms of storytelling, what dramatic structures has humanity developed over the millennia? You need to understand classic story structure, minimalist structure, anti-plot, and the boundaries of the avant-garde, before you can break any molds and call it an experiment. Otherwise it’s just pouring paint on the floor. Jackson Pollock didn’t do that.

The important thing is to understand story structure (if you’re writing fiction) and how to construct an argument or organize an article (if you’re writing nonfiction).

Expecting readers to embrace and congratulate every unedited blurt is self-indulgent. Writing to show off our vocabulary is self indulgent. We need to speak our truth, but if we want others to read it, we have to remember: the person who speaks has the responsibility to communicate. It’s up to the speaker to make sure their message gets through clearly to the recipient.

My grandfather taught me that. It’s still good advice.

That’s where I find the line. Does the writing communicate effectively? Does it speak the truth, and give the reader a powerful emotional experience? Does it work?

As for encouraging avant-garde stuff: absolutely. Especially in a class or when writing a first draft, be your blessed weird self. Hoist that freak flag as high as it’ll go. Pour everything out. Don’t censor, don’t edit. Try new things. Expand your repertoire. Develop new muscles. Soar, crash, and come at it from new angles. Experiment, or you’ll never grow.

Then, when that glorious pile of weird is writhing on the page, edit it until it coheres and shines.

3 responses to “Ask Me Anything: What’s the line between experimental and self-indulgent?

  1. I have always wondered how anyone could actually tell Jackson Pollock didn’t just spill paint on the floor.

    For way-out-there experimental writing: “Tristram Shandy,” by Lawrence Sterne

  2. “when that glorious pile of weird is writhing on the page” – Haha! LOVE this phrase, and the visual 🙂

    I’m a big fan of weird, of stylization, and yes, even vocabulary! Running to the dictionary to look up a scrumptious new word is fun for me. But there’s a limit. I’m not into pieces that feel pretentious or seem deliberately obtuse.

  3. Yes, Shannon — reading can be an adventure. It’s wonderful when a piece of writing stretches our comprehension. As writers, it takes practice (and experimentation!) to find the line between exhilarating and pretentious.

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