Self-Expression & Voice

22:37 Sun 16 Jan 2011. Updated: 20:10 18 Jan 2011
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What does it mean to truly express yourself? At first glance, it may seem that this is a pointless question, since the truth value of self-expression can only really be measured by the subject. But that’s not how it really works, and generally we’re well able to spot falsity, artificiality, and posturing. I don’t mean that we’re able to detect lies, as I’m not really talking about objective truth here, but more about what we believe about ourselves and the use of our genuine voice, where “genuine” is something that can’t necessarily be pinned down by a solid definition.

This lack of a solid definition, and of empirical testability, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s probably easiest to observe “non-genuine self-expression” when children do it, or when we ourselves remember doing it as children. Children will generally do this imitatively, trying to act in some way that they’ve seen others act, most likely in an attempt to be treated similarly to how those others are treated. It’s clear to an observer that it’s an act, and the child knows it’s an act but is committed to denying that knowledge. That is an example of the inverse of self-expression, but probably only one of the easiest forms to spot—after all, which is more likely to occur as we grow older, that we give up posturing and posing to attract the kinds of attention we desire, or that we become far more adept at so doing?

Personally, I’ve always hated posturing of that kind, both in others and myself. I doubt this is a rare sentiment, given the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye, but I’m not at all convinced that this hatred leads to much other than another layer of posturing, of deriding as “phony” those who navigate social waters with greater ease and of privileging either awkwardness or obscurity or both.

In fact, my hatred of artificial self-expression, of self-expression done not to express the self but for social advancement, leads to a different kind of inability to express the self: a prison of constant expression policing. It’s good to not say things unless you really mean them—and I try pretty hard at that—but given the tendency of concepts like “meaning something” to collapse under scrutiny, what you end up with is less, and constrained, expression.

Approaching it from another angle: if self-expression is difficult, which it seems to be, we have to be able to try and fail at it. We must be allowed our failures in order that occasional successes be possible at all. We must be able to play with it, to paw the self around in the air before catching it between our teeth and shaking it from side to side until it squeaks true.

In conversation about a similar topic with my friend Sharon near the start of the year, I said, “speaking the truth is like sculpting statues from water.” At the time I thought I was trying to remember a quotation, but it appears to be an original line, if not an original idea. Again putting aside the issue of objective truth, one of the things I was trying to get at with that statement was the difficulty even in expressing truthfully what we’re thinking, feeling, experiencing, at any given moment.

The self isn’t unchanging—insofar as it truly exists at all—and how much of our “self-expression” is attempting to keep it static, to hold it in place so that we can figure out what it is, what we are, and cling to that in comfort and security? Once we do that, of course, we ossify, and either lose true touch with the self or lock it down, and I’m not sure which of those is worse. So we have to work hard to express the self and not allow that hard work to create rigidity—which sounds about the same level of difficulty as sculpting from water.

It’s no coincidence that I chose water as the element in that line. “Be like water” is a line made famous by Bruce Lee, who also once defined martial arts as the expression of the self, so while I wasn’t quoting I was certainly influenced by others covering similar ground.

What about “voice”? There’s no question that artists, especially writers, need to “find their voice”, and that there is often a distinct and noticeable difference in their work once they do so. Noticeable both to them and others, but because the noticing is bound up in aesthetic judgment, and because artifice is almost always a critical part of art, and because we can be so easily fooled by trickery and cleverness, we should concern ourselves only with finding our own voice in terms of truth, and consider the paths of others who have found theirs from a perspective of learning tools and technique.

The most important tool is of course practice. Some form of self-expression is possible in almost any action, and we should take that opportunity whenever we can, for practice will only help us get closer to true self and true voice, while posturing and posing—except in play—will only bring us further away. There are of course other rewards we may gain by suppressing our “true selves”—if such even actually exist—but the peril is that we may gain something and lose touch with ourselves, thus in effect sacrificing ourselves to give the reward to some other being in our own bodies. Is that even possible? I think it is; if self-actualization is possible, then so is its opposite.

As for technique, who knows? My only feeling here is that limits are more valuable than they might seem, and that placing some limits on our creative endeavors—which may be all our endeavors—makes those endeavors more effective.

Somewhat on topic, for what it’s worth I wrote this piece straight through without almost no editing, which seems appropriate, as does totaling 1000 words.

4 Responses to “Self-Expression & Voice”

  1. garret Says:

    People see this when they die:



  2. Seth Milliken Says:



  3. garret Says:


  4. Anne Says:

    Not sure why I found this post so interesting, other than the fact that I want to punch actors when they say they are “expressing themselves” onstage, when in fact they mostly should be doing the total opposite. Plus, I sometimes fear that my intense hatred of the phrase “self expression” might limit my creative output. So, I’m doing a show that I wrote that’s all about me, and hoping that the self-indulgence pays off :)

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