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ESSAY: Me, myself and I

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, February 20, 2017  /  09:28 am
ESSAY: Me, myself and I

Rest assured, many writers — whether they are journalists or literary writers — are pretty self-obsessed and even, sometimes, selfish. (Shutterstock/*)

Rest assured, many writers — whether they are journalists or literary writers — are pretty self-obsessed and even, sometimes, selfish. Self-obsessed refers to the habit of being caught up in one’s own mind, thinking about what to write next — on issues that concern the writer. Selfish refers to the tendency to shut out other people, particularly when a piece of writing is at its gestation period and the writer is ready to bring it to life. The more hard-core a writer you are, the more you exhibit these characteristics — at least, that’s how I see it.

Let’s talk a little bit about a personal experience here: Although I can be pretty self-obsessed, I can’t stand to isolate myself for too long. I have a great need for socializing. Recently I met a friend, also a writer, who also has a great need to socialize with others in order not just to recharge her batteries but also let off some steam. She complained to me about being ‘stranded’ in the wrong environment: She often feels lonely, because all her contemporaries are highly self-obsessed and can isolate themselves for weeks, even months, just to brew over their pieces. They are all hardcore intellectuals, I know. Sometimes, their sacrifice pays off and they produce great work.

“It’s amazing when people are able to do that. I wish I also had no need for socialization, because then I wouldn’t feel lonely [when my friends shut themselves off to contemplate and write],” my friend lamented.

I am grateful that not all of my friends are that hard-core. At least, sometimes I can still find time to hang around with them and have a real conversation. Like last Sunday, I went to a little book club created in collaboration with two friends of mine, who live in the village of Cinangka, Depok, West Java.

First we discussed books we are reading, before the conversation digressed seamlessly to pure gossip. One member talked about her dislike of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, not just because the work takes an orientalist view of the East (in this case, the “East” is embodied by Ubud, Bali), but also because the writer is an egocentric, whose sole obsession covers three domains: me, myself and I.

Then we moved on to talk about another writer, how this writer seems to obsess over the concept of me, “myself and I”.

“It’s always the same thing […] An event will only be important if it affects this person personally. In a nutshell, this person writes just to show ‘Look, I am great!’ Well, who cares!” my friend told me before laughing out loud.

Then I paused and said: “Hey, I also write essays of personal experiences and use I a lot…”

“No, you’re exploring your pain, talking about the human condition. That’s different,” she said.

And still, I did not get the difference between self-exploration and self-aggrandizement right away. This led me to contemplate the matter for the next few days. First of all, what is the subject of your writing? Do you faithfully stick to it? Do you use personal experience merely as a jumping-off point, or do you consciously put yourself under the spotlight and use the subject matter merely as a frame to put your own photograph in?

For instance, say I’m writing about my hometown, North Sumatra. It’s different to use my own personal experiences as a jumping-off point to move on to the bigger picture than to use the setting as a jumping-off point for me to talk and brag about myself.

Example: Say I’m writing about the influence of the Batak Toba diaspora on the Indonesian culture, I could provide one particular example about the struggle of my friend, who also hailed from the province, to adapt to Jakarta, a cruel city in itself. But then I have to move on to the big picture.

I could probably throw in snippets of information from local cultural figures to whom I am close to tap their wisdom for the readers.

That would be very different from writing about the same subject, but talking about me all the time: how great I am to be able to approach prominent North Sumatran cultural figures, my own great ability to consistently retain my practices of local spirituality in the city of Jakarta, my penchant for eating dog and pork and how Batak people from the region finance my writing projects to going as far as explaining the meaning of my name in the local language and how it affects my life (Can you count how many I, me and my possessive determiners/pronouns I used just in that short paragraph?). If I did that, surely I would get lost in my own vanity and make my readers yawn out of boredom.

Which brings us to your intention as a writer. Do you use self-revelation and expose your weaknesses and vulnerability to present to the readers a common thread shared by others, or do you use it to brag and show others just how great you are? There is a big difference between the two.

This intention, albeit known only to the writer, can sometimes reveal itself to the reader.

In short, being an egocentric, self-aggrandizing writer does not always bore readers to tears. Self-aggrandizing books and columns still sell, particularly in this age of self-entitlement. This is proven by statistics and reader surveys across different media platforms.

After all, have we forgotten that Eat Pray Love is a huge bestseller? Whatever type of writing you want to put out, it all depends on your intention as a writer. Do you want to connect with other people, or would you prefer to be trapped in your own vanity? You decide.