The Best Art Is Impersonal

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

T.S. Eliot


A common conception of art is that is the expression of who we are — Our emotions, our experiences, our thoughts — While that isn’t wrong, we misunderstand it to an extent that we think it’s supposed to be all about ourselves, that we forget about who we’re communicating our art to.

Art, above anything, is about communication — Without an intended audience, a piece of writing, or any form of work becomes only a monologue, an untapped potential — Because the only person who could relate to that piece of work is you.

To quote Toby Litt, “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self. The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.”

We often make the mistake of being too personal in our work.

If something you worked really hard on ended up reaching nobody — You wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you?



Writing an Anthem


“When you catch a really great songwriter, the song is about something else, but you say, ‘That’s me’.”

Jimmy Iovine

He had gone through a decade of drought, that is, ten years without publishing a good novel. Critics harshly stabbed at his works, doubting his abilities as a writer. Readers had come close to accepting that Ernest Hemingway’s glory days were long gone, that maybe, he was finally done.

Hemingway always believed that life itself is the ultimate fabric for his stories. “Writers live interesting lives,” as Ryan Holiday would say. To write things that are unique, writers must first do unique things.

Hemingway’s novels are often brilliant portraits of his own life and his adventures. Among many extraordinary things like winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prizes, he served as an ambulance driver in the First World War, which caused him to be seriously wounded by a mortar shell. He also fought in the Spanish Civil War and took part in the D-Day landings during the invasion of France in the Second World War. When he wasn’t writing, he was also a world class fisherman, an avid boxer, a big game hunter, and a bullfighting aficionado.

He had in his mind an idea for a book, one that sat in his head and heart for 16 years before he finally started working on it. That idea was The Old Man and The Sea, which he viewed as his product of a lifetime of writing — He believed that all of his previous works had culminated into the writing of this one small novel.

As he passed his manuscript to his editor, he said that “It is the best I can write ever for all of my life.” He said, “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in…I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

Just like Hemingway’s previous stories, if one dug a little deeper, one would find just how much The Old Man and The Sea reflected his own life. As Philip Young, a literary critic, would note, “Many of the stories…are very literal translations of some of the most important events in Hemingway’s own life.”

Having gone through his failed marriages, Hemingway was lonely during that time of writing, just as the protagonist, Santiago is lonely. Hemingway had stood years without writing a good book, just as Santiago hadn’t caught a single fish for 84 days. Hemingway tried to prove himself time and again, just as Santiago had to. To save their reputations, Santiago had to catch a great fish, and Hemingway had to write a great novel. Another literary critic, Sonny Elizondo wrote, “[T]he old fisherman figuratively sails the author’s unconscious…in an attempt to pull forth the great story from its…depths.”

Santiago’s marlin becomes torn apart by sharks, and that is symbolic of critics tearing apart The Old Man and The Sea — Which, after the reviews of his previous works — Is probably what Hemingway expected.

The symbols in the novel meant a lot to Hemingway, but what is more astounding is the meaning that resonates in its readers, more than 60 years after it was first published.

Readers across the globe have adopted the book as an anthem for their struggles. Remembering the book’s message that “man can be destroyed but not defeated”, that the only meaningful success is knowing that you have struggled well. You might end up not getting a trophy, you might come to realize that you lacked knowledge, that you could have done better, that you weren’t good enough, or some kind of accident ruined your chances for victory — All of that outside your control. But what truly matters is that you can sleep soundly at the end of the day, because you know that you’ve given all you could.






Hemingway coined the writing technique called the “Iceberg Theory”, which basically says that in writing a great story, the writer should purposefully omit certain parts and contexts of his writing. This way, the deeper meaning of the story presents itself to the reader through more indirect, yet eloquent ways.

In his essay, “The Art of the Short Story”, Hemingway writes about his theory, “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”

And just as Hemingway said of Old Man and The Sea, that “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.” — If he made the story too real, if he drowned the characters with too many contexts of his own life, the story wouldn’t be as good — Because instead of the reader meeting the writer halfway in the story, the story’s just a lot about the writer himself.

And so how did Hemingway deal with this situation? — By leaving significant gaps in the story for his readers to fill with their own interpretations — He didn’t dictate what the sharks meant, what having gone for 84 days without catching a fish meant — It was up to the readers to decide how they could relate the story to their own lives.

This act of turning the personal into the impersonal is what the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote of as “Gigantic attempts to metamorphose private failures and disappointments.”

With some advice from Eliot, here’s what you can do to make your breathe an air of universality into your work.

Firstly, he said, “Where every poet starts from is his own emotions…Shakespeare too, was occupied with the struggle — Which alone constitutes life for a poet — To transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal.”

To that, he added, “It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting…The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feeling, which are not in actual emotions at all.”

And lastly, he wrote, “Very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach the impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.”

So — Start from your own emotions — Your own life experiences, something unique that happened in your past. Then, as you find your ground in your work, omit parts of it that are insignificant, that are too much about you — Delicately add layers to your work, build up gaps of interpretation, making your work relatable and universal.

How would you know which emotions are significant and which ones are not? — Surrender yourself to your work — You’re past expressing yourself. Don’t think about articulating your feelings and emotions anymore — Rather, think about the message that you want to convey to your reader. What important thing do you want to say? What’s that thing of value that you want her to take away from your work?

As a musician, Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots put it this way, “Our songwriting and our career decision-making are heavily influenced by the fact that we know we play live shows almost every night. So we can’t write a song or say something that we don’t want to say over and over again.”

And to Eliot’s advice, we may add, think about who you’re creating your work for. Just as Stephen King practices in his own writing, it often helps to have an Ideal Reader in mind — Ideally, a real person who reads your work — Maybe a friend, a spouse — For Stephen King, his Ideal Reader is his wife, Tabitha.

This way, you could easily be more objective with your work because you would take a step back and ask yourself, “What would my Ideal Reader think of this? Would she laugh? Would this be effective?”

Not only that, having an Ideal Reader can spare you from making a fool out of yourself, too.

Therefore, remember — The bottom line is, you need an audience. Your work has to be for somebody. If it’s meant for just anybody, it will end up being for nobody.

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