We've all been to a show and thought to ourselves. "Good lord. What a load of self-indulgent twaddle. Someone needs to take a chainsaw to that script."
Self Indulgence is often thought of as a terrible thing, and surely that is very true. It often refers to a scene or a song which reveals that a writer is trying a bit too hard. It’s a show off, it patronises it’s audience and it outstays it’s welcome.
But I’d like to make a case for the importance of self-indulgence in the life and craft of a writer. I would like to propose that there are (at least) three areas of your work where you can't over indulge... indeed it's almost essential to improvement in the craft of writing and I’m going to talk about them all over myself right on my very important and indulgent blog.
Being a professional writer means dedicating yourself to it. It doesn’t mean starving yourself, or going on a bender to get “life experience”, it doesn’t mean driving yourself or those around you mad with insane habits, it doesn’t mean indulging in childish or prickish behaviour. You don’t have to be a dick to be good. The two things are completely unrelated to one another. If it so happens that there have been amazing writers who were also amazing knob ends, that’s by the by. The one does not preclude the other. In fact in many ways, we would probably find that the amazing knob ends became amazing writers in spite of (not because of) their total prickishness.
What I mean by dedication is spending time learning about your craft, which basically means DOING it. Even if this is just ten minutes a day that still counts as dedication. I think dedication is demonstrated more by consistency and regularity than by quantity. It is possible to work full time in an unrelated field and still be dedicated to the art of writing, you still get to call yourself a writer as long as you can demonstrate consistent dedication to the art of writing. So indulge in the art of writing, be dedicated to it, that can only be a good thing.
To write a real character you have to practise the art of empathy. People may disagree with me that empathy is something that you can practice, and I completely empathise with their disagreement. I think of empathy as basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes for a time, trying to see and feel all the things they might be feeling in a particular moment so that you can better understand their emotional situation and (if needs be) help them through it.
I think it’s true that some people have a natural empathic inclination and that others have less natural ability, but I also think that (no matter where on the empathy scale you fall) if you want to be a writer, then you would do well to practise empathy whenever you can. Essentially, a writer needs to empathise with every single one of their characters. Especially when their characters have a personal history/views/opinions that are completely alien to that of the writer. The ability to step inside another persons heart and mind is the most important tool of the writer and is probably the least taught.
Personally, I think the teaching of it is fairly simple. In that all you have to do is practice. To do it regularly until it becomes a habit. The best thing about empathy is that it’s one of those things that you can literally practise ALL the time. It doesn’t take time away from your other chores or passions, indeed you can even do it whilst on a date with your significant other and they need ever know your secret… the practice of empathy involves using your imagination to a large degree. Whenever you see someone in a particular emotional state, try and spend some time imagining yourself in their position.
One thing’s for sure, it is empathy which gives us perspective. It shows us how our characters see the world, it teaches us how they interact with it. As a writer you can never be too empathetic. You’ll probably find that it improves other aspects of your life as well.
To make our lives a little easier we surround ourselves with the familiar. We have friends who share our basic values and beliefs, we live in places that feel like home and we surround ourselves with things we know and understand. But it’s only when our values and beliefs are challenged that we really start to think about why we have them in the first place. Why are the things that are important to us actually important to us? Is it because they were important to our parents? Is it because it’s what our society says is right?
For me, a value or belief is absolutely meaningless unless it is questioned. If it is worthwhile it will be able to withstand the rigours of interrogation, if it is not, it will fall by the wayside where it belongs.
And there is nothing, absolutely nothing like travel to test your preconceptions and assumptions about the way the world should be. When we travel, we have the opportunity to practice cultural empathy on an epic scale. We have the opportunity to meet people who believe in something completely different to us, something completely alien.
When our fundamental beliefs and core values are questioned we often feel like we are under personal attack and we put up defences to keep ourselves safe. But the walls that we erect are not keeping us safe from anything. Much like Mr-Donald-Fuck-Trump’s-Mexico-Will-Pay-For-It-Wall we are defending ourselves from an imaginary enemy. Our minds are fear-mongering.
But the questioning is not there to destroy you. It’s there to make you stronger. So travel, question, allow yourself to be questions. Indulge yourself in that.