The Page Reflects the Human Heart
Can earnest vulnerability work against you?
In a culture that has hijacked human pain, turned it into a consumer good, and weaponized the personal essay for maximum profit, readers get confused. How can you tell a genuine narrative from a hammed up one purposely written to tug at the purse strings of the commentariat?
“Woe is me” has become a brand, rendering us all a little less compassionate, a little more dubitative. Every day, we’re presented with so much suffering it’s hard to parse how much of it is an accurate reflection of what a fellow human is going through and how much is exaggeration for clicks and bucks.
For those of us who engage in writing as service and strive to document what it means to be a human in the world, it presents a particular conundrum. How deep should we dig and how worthy is this emotional labor to others when there’s a risk dispassionate language and predicaments communicated in a low key and factual way may fail to engage readers?
Unlike self-serving writing, service writing focuses on shared humanness rather than personal branding. Instead of telling you, it shows you what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes and then it invites you to ponder and reflect. It is often melancholy and a little reticent, the writer’s struggle to push through discomfort palpable in print. In contrast, clickbait farmers let it all hang out without second thoughts; the more shocking, the better. It’s never about how to help readers but how to help themselves and profiteer from the disempowerment of those seeking answers and relief.
And yet, those who epitomize barefaced greed and grabbiness do well.
It’s inevitable that the lowest common denominator will always commandeer the most attention; look at Trump in the US!
But does this mean we should dumb down our work, relinquish self-respect, and pander to this lowest common denominator for clicks and bucks and mass appeal?
Life isn’t a marketing campaign, you’re a human, not a product or a brand!
No matter how much you may be struggling, be it creatively, emotionally, financially, please resist the urge to sell out. If you do, you’ll end up corrupting your writing voice instead of honing it and you may never get its uniqueness back. And then you’ll end up sounding like everyone else, your copy undistinguishable from that of dozens of others.
You’ll become another interchangeable clone who produces more noise, not signal; you might make money but you’ll never establish credibility.
So how to be heard above all the bluff and bluster?
If you’re a very private person who doesn’t let many people in, personal essay writing is a format that will take a lot out of you as it demands radical honesty.
When the contents of your head and heart finally land on the page, it’s not uncommon to be taken aback by what you find.
Major depressive disorder stole my writing voice and livelihood for five years. As a journalist, it was my worst nightmare. When I was finally able to string sentences together again, I found out I was seething with incandescent anger, the kind of anger that kickstarts things. And the kind of anger that is unsustainable in the long run as stress and heart health do not bosom buddies make.
This anger surprised me so I started taking it apart to try and understand it, which informed my work. It turned out immigration was the organ transplant that hadn’t taken, and America the reason I was sick for so long. As failures go, this one left my entire life in ruins on all fronts. Once I calmed down, I forced myself to come to the page naked because there really was nothing I could possibly hide behind; everything was gone.
The process turned out to be oddly liberating; when you have nothing to lose, there are no constraints anymore. There’s nothing to destroy, you can either stagnate or rebuild.
Because I come from the EU, I wasn’t quite prepared for how America commodifies absolutely everything. Nor could I find it in myself to embrace this mindset at the detriment of human dignity so I did the only thing I could come up with: I started to push back in with words.
This isn’t how you please crowds hankering for human misery so they can feel better about themselves. But if you can make one single person question their assumptions and tickle their curiosity about alternatives then your job is done.
Is there still a place for humility in print?
Rather, is there still a place for truth seekers who honestly admit to not having much of clue and write to try and figure life out? In the age of listicles and pompous pablum rehashing the same tired tropes in bold, everyone is an instant expert.
Owning up to our ignorance is rebellious, ditto confessing to being confused as both imply we aren’t quite as in control as we seem.
But who ever is?
Isn’t it oddly empowering to know we don’t have all the answers and are therefore free to find or even create those that best suit our needs? And isn’t it exciting a piece of writing might spark off discovery, connection, and collaboration if only we dare be wholly and imperfectly human?
Entrusting our heart to the page without artifice is always a bold act of hope. Sometimes, we write to let go of all that has been holding us back, be it stigma, discrimination, isolation, loneliness, neglect, rejection, or shame.
We write so we might learn how to live unapologetically.
We write to make the world a more tolerant and tolerable place, one where human value isn’t a dollar figure but something innate to all.
As British-American journalist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
What is writing but a way of thinking out loud that allows our heart to make its way into the world and find out where it belongs?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.