Are You a Self-Conscious Writer? Is Your Writing Precious?

Just what do I mean by “self-conscious writing”?

Reaching into the grab bag that is Google, I pluck out definitions, no single one hitting on what I think quite sums it up.

Most define “self-conscious writing” as a form of extreme self-awareness:

Like the Calvinist elect, the people of the creative class are fairly certain they are destined to be creative, but can never be certain about just how creative they are. So they must seek outward signs of their blessed inner superiority, must seek or contrive recognition for their creativity whenever possible. This is that class’s essential self-consciousness, and when it is acute, it becomes hipsterism. ~ Rob Horning

That’s a bit nebulous, isn’t it? I think that Mr. Horning describes what, in another time, could be “precious.” Not in the manner of being rare and priceless, but rather “affected,” as in manners. “Overwrought” is another apt word for the condition. Writing becomes “precious” when self-conscious writers use big words (“$10 words”), awkward phrasings, obscure references to Greek myths, and sly allusions to classical literature.

“Precious” feels about right.

But, and there’s always a “but,” beginning writers should not despair. Even the literary luminaries occasionally fell into the pit of self-conscious wordiness.

John Updike:

It was a window enchanted by the rarity with which I looked from it. Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain. (Of the Farm, 1965)

Your writing is precious, though, if you define it as “priceless.” And it is priceless, because no one else sees the world the way you do. Tell your story, just as I will tell mine, in your own words, not the words you think you ought to say because of some exaggerated expectation of what writing should be.

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