What do we fear the most: the shadow of self-censorship

I hate trite sayings but one I often trot out is that people who say they never self-censor clearly only have the blandest thoughts. I think that remains at least  partially true, but behind the triteness it’s a question to which I give a huge amount of time, and always have. Particularly so at the moment, though, as it remains the one unwritten piece in my forthcoming book “Self-publish with Integrity.” The section is called “Never be Ashamed to Be You.” And I’m still struggling with it, still on the precipice of “do as I say not as I do.”

This was compounded yesterday by a serendipitous series. First I read a piece on Jessica Bell’s lovely website. It was written by Alison Morton and boldly advised “Write What You Want.” Now of course this is true. But I come back to “sort of” because the question of boundaries incurs again – “what if I want to write is beyond the pale?”


(my collection (life) razorblades included – click the cover to download – contains some of the very few pieces SKIN BOOK and the “things we talked about while she was bleeding out” series – I have written that are genuinely free from self-censorship)

Next, I found myself watching a superb episode of Imagine on iPlayer. It was about Outsider Art, and it felt like such a  release, because the central premise was that the unedited and untaught had a quality endowed on it through its uneditedness. That’s a point I’ve made about literature again and again – and been shot down for again and again. But it’s also a point that gets write to the heart of the matter in hand – to be unedited means to bypass completely the self-censor. That, it seemed to me, was the primary reason so many of the artists featured were so uncomfortable to watch (that and, I have to say, the suspicion of exploitation).  They were utterly uinashamed of who they were and what their art was. There was a sincerity that anyone raised in any way on the “inside” finds hugely unnerving.

Finally, last night’s #litchat session on twitter was about block and overcoming the barriers to creativity. It soon became clear from the conversation that for many people, fear, in particular the fear of people’s reaction to their work, was a huge barrier to completion.

cover for ebook(Evie and Guy – click the cover to download – is one of the few things I have written without caring what anyone thought. One of the nicest things I’ve ever had said about my work was when a writer and journalist I very much respect told me he admired it particularly because it had been written without any concern for the market)

Appropriately, I scribbled the following thoughts as a stream of consciousness. And I will repeat them unedited. It’s not the last word on self-censorship. It’s certainly not how the chapter will appear in my book – I am very aware of the need to edit that for clarity. I do hope it might both elucidate my thoughts and start a debate though.

What I fear. The terrifying tsunami of a revelation that I am normal. That I am average, my thoughts just like other people’s thoughts and the world I perceive just how other people perceive it, that when they see through my eyes there is an utter transparency that sheds no new light at all either on the world they see or the eyes through which they see it.

(reading the uncensored The Last Fluffer in La La Land at Brighton’s wonderful Grit Lit)

At the same time, the knowledge that the scrapings that attach themselves most insistently to the inside, feel most uniquely me, are unacceptable to any audience – maybe because those parts of me that are truly me render me an object of disgust or misunderstanding and so there is too much risk in exposing them – real life risk, not artistic risk, and maybe because their unoriginality lies in sharing a perception of the world with those I find unacceptable. Am I subconsciously sexist, racist, selfish, capitalistic, a fetishiser and objectifier not an exposer fo such things – worse still am I not so subconsciously those things and is that why my art always wears, even to myself, a mask – the knowledge that when I speak in my own voice I reveal something putrid?

It first manifested itself very literally in my writing. Specifically in my handwriting in copyism and the desire to emulate, to pastiche. to seek some reflected credit of others who did it better, more acceptably – a constantly shifting Zeligographia that shied away from the inevitable criticism that came from teachers – of being rushed, hurried, messy, not caring about my work, unartful – when the mask slipped – those same accusations levelled constantly at the underedited as people seek to justify the slow destruction of creativity in the name of creativity. It was my first lesson that value lay in technique and not in what the technique conveyed.

This obsession with what other people do, the conviction of its relative value with relation to my own work is the one thing I have carried with me. And at the bottom of it all is that word – acceptable, with all its cluster of connotations. The creative world creates an idol of acceptability – acceptable to the reader, acceptable to the media, to the law, the reviewer, ultimately to the market. But we as messy and messed up human beings are acceptable in none of these ways – or at least I can’t help thinking that those who are most so are those I am least interested in hearing. So how do we resolve within ourselves and within our advice columns this problem of acceptability so that we no longer give the advice “write what you want” with the implicit caveat of acceptability but give it in the truest sense of “even though it may shock, disgust, nauseate, revile and alienate”?

3 thoughts on “What do we fear the most: the shadow of self-censorship

  1. “The terrifying tsunami of a revelation that I am normal. That I am average, my thoughts just like other people’s thoughts and the world I perceive just how other people perceive it, that when they see through my eyes there is an utter transparency that sheds no new light at all either on the world they see or the eyes through which they see it.”
    Yes, this is so.
    This I understand.
    To write purely for the experience of releasing WHATEVER is inside is terrifying. A friend long ago suggested to me that one day I write something and destroy it without ever sharing it. I’ve never had the courage to do this. I’m not sure I ever will. But I am working on something that I choose to write only when the sense of being *entranced* by the impulses that drive the story, and by eschewing the need to shape it as I go along to make it more accessible, more readable, more *conventional*. It’s not a novel but rather a kind of journaling of metanoia. I do not know precisely when or how it will end but I will know when it has reached the end.

    • It’s funny, isn’t it – I have thought about about doing that too but I still can’t – it’s as though it’s less being seen that we’re afraid of and more the simple act of putting it down on paper – as though that, the act of writing/typing is somehow what makes those thoughts real, represents the admission “there I am, average or unacceptable” and that by refusing to write it we hold out the hope that we might be something more. I am sure that by actually writing it – that’s when we’d really get to see the something more. But that doesn’t make doing it any easier!

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