Monthly Archives: November 2019

writing is at bottom a self-centered activity


The following is a statement about writing in the form of a comment which I appended to my post “My Boyhood”

Roger W. Smith, “My Boyhood”

It was made by me in response to a comment by a reader of my post.


— Roger W. Smith

   November 2019



I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”

I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.

I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.

I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.

My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.

So, what individuals, persons get included, as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?

Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and my first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.

How Ralph’s birth would come into play does not seem pertinent. I was still age three when he was born. And, a sort of diaristic account of everything that occurred in the family and milestones was not what I intended. I certainly do recall your birth and how exciting it was for the family and me, especially to have a sister.

In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.

A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

I once attended a lecture by Allen Grossman, an English professor at Brandeis University who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.

Regarding subject matter – and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.

A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?

Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.

I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.

Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. Our family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.

This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of our family: ME.

My former therapist, Ralph Colp Jr., observed that writing is at bottom a self-centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.




Benjamin Franklin seems to have been regarded as an egotist.

His autobiography (which he died having never completed) is regarded, deservedly, as a classic.

Franklin had twelve siblings in his immediate family (his father had a total of seventeen children from two marriages). They and Franklin’s parents are scarcely mentioned in the Autobiography (and then only in the first few paragraphs, with most of the siblings remaining unnamed and unmentioned), with the exception of Franklin’s brother James. James figures prominently in the early chapters because Franklin’s worked as a boy in the former’s printing establishment. This was an important experience in determining the course of Franklin’s life. His disagreements with his brother (who was jealous of the attention and praise Franklin received for squibs he wrote for his brother’s papers) were the main reason Franklin left Boston to try his luck in Philadelphia.

There would have no point in an autobiography of Franklin’s devoting space to his parents or siblings. He touches upon family very briefly by way of introduction and then moves on.