“But what if it’s self-indulgent?”
I used to hear this a lot from students, generally when they’ve been given permission to perform something they’ve written. It ranks right after “It’s pretentious” as one of the most baffling comments I hear repeatedly wherever I teach. I can never get a good working definition of pretentious out of a student. No one knows what it means, they just know, like obscenity, it gives them a funny tingly feeling that they have to pretend not to like.
“But what if it’s self-indulgent?” I teach students who want to be performers. Not all of my students want to do this professionally but they want to do it well because, unlike in most other classes they will take, if they do not do it well they will fail in public. This is a very motivating force, and one I am familiar with.
The students who are worried about being self-indulgent are not, surprisingly the one’s who shouldn’t worry. They are often the ones who are locked in their heads, not their egos, who are afraid of taking up space, even as they get edged out of the space by louder voices.
I don’t want to squash that impulse. It’s good to think about where and how your words might land on other ears. It’s good to not make sound for the sake of making sound. But it’s also good to make sounds that you can hear, to think about shaping them in ways that might actually, oh, I don’t know, convey meaning and bring joy to other people.
Yes, Virginia, it is self-indulgent to get up in front of a group of people and talk to them about yourself. You should take it seriously and tell your story with care and in such a way that someone else thinks “yes, that’s my story.” But it’s no more self-indulgent than driving a car. Or drinking from a disposable water bottle. Or any often myriad other things you do each day without thinking simply because everyone else is doing them.
Not everyone needs to be telling stories in front of large audiences. Very few people do. But doing the work to get a story ready for a large audience, giving it a beginning, middle, end, and figuring out what it’s ABOUT—these are all healthy ways to live. Study your life, and process it, and share it with compassion and humor. These things are nice and make you a better person.