"That Wasn't Written For You": Writerly Meanderings On The Insufficiencies Of Words

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I wound up making an argument recently that I hate to make in general, let alone of my own writings: “Well, a lot of people liked it.”
But a friend of mine had complained that one of my essays, which dealt with a certain type of BDSM submissive, was too simplistic and didn’t reflect her experience as a sub.  And I replied that I didn’t write the essay for well-rounded, self-policing submissives like her, I was writing it for all of these other submissives who often conflated “submission” with “being a doormat to anyone who asks”… and as evidence, I pointed to the 500 FetLife “loves” that essay had accumulated as proof that my words had hit home for someone. (It eventually went on to become my most popular essay on FetLife ever, getting over 2500+ “Loves,” 500+ comments, and inspiring at least two workshops.)
The problem was, I felt like a dick.  “Popularity” isn’t a synonym for “good,” and it felt uncomfortably to me like I was whipping out the “Hey, the public loves it!” card in lieu of an actual, you know, debate.  But that’s not what I was actually trying to say.
What I was trying to say is that you can do one of two things in an essay: hit home with someone emotionally, or be perfectly clear that this feeling that some people have doesn’t apply to everyone.  But it’s near impossible to have both, since accomplishing one successfully minimizes the other.
I knew when I wrote the essay that I’d be addressing a subset of people, so I did what I often do: I started by saying, “Here’s how ‘you’ are.”  Look at how I constructed the opener:

“So you’re a good little submissive in search of a Master. Handing control of yourself over to someone else feels like a vacation – no more decisions, no more worries, just a firm hand on the back of your head and a cock in your throat. You crave that feeling of being owned. You want to live there.”

What I’m trying to do here is actually twofold: one, to say to the people who do feel this instinct, yes, I get how you feel.  But more importantly, I’m creating a narrative dissonance, throwing out a warning to those who don’t feel this: if this ‘you’ I’m describing is violently at odds with who you are, then you probably want to walk away right now.
In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll note I try to add an escape hatch to every essay I write that pretends to give advice: the place where I encode a message to tell the reader: if this doesn’t ring true for you, please abandon this advice posthaste.  Sometimes it’s a small escape hatch, as it often is when I say, “Of course not everyone feels this way…” seven paragraphs down, or sometimes it’s right and blatant when I start an essay with, “There is a type of person who…”
Yet I need that escape hatch.  Because the human condition is very large, and there’s literally no words I could write on it that everyone would agree with.  Yes, I could write “You will die some day,” but there are people who genuinely believe they’ve stumbled onto the secret of immortality, and they don’t agree with it emotionally.
Let me be clear: There is no class of people for whom I can speak completely.
No matter what situation I speak about, no matter how narrow, I will misrepresent the feelings of some significant subset of people.  You might think “BDSM submissives” is too big, so I’d write about the emotional experiences of “24/7, lifestyle enslaved BDSM submissives.”  But some statement I’d make wouldn’t encompass everyone, so I’d have to narrow down to “24/7, lifestyle-enslaved BDSM submissives who are in the household of an abusive partner.”  But then there’d be some significant omission, so I’d have to narrow down to “24/7, lifestyle-enslaved BDSM submissives who are in the household of an abusive lesbian rope-mistress.”
Eventually, I’d write about one person: Mary.  And Mary might not well agree with my take on her life.  Essay: failed.
And that’s the central trick of writing: you don’t write for everyone.  You write to evoke emotions in a specific subset of people.  Quite often, in fiction, that person is you (as I often say, “If I won’t cry for my characters, who will?”)… but the point is that there’s a reason some writers are beloved by some and hated by others.  What those writes wrote rang true about life for the people who loved them, and came off false and/or patronizing to those who didn’t.
So in writing essays designed to help people in a specifically bad situation, I write to evoke the emotion that they feel, to start off by making them go, “Yes!  That’s who I am!  This dude gets me!”… and then, once I’ve slid under the door and proven that I understand their situation, I’ll start dissecting all the issues that comes along with this emotion.
Which is why my essays are often as effective as they are.  I’ll say to someone, Yes, I’m one of you… and here’s where I know we have problems.
But in writing those openers, what I don’t – what I can’t – say is, “You realize you’re not representative of the BDSM submissive community as a whole, and not all submissives feel this way”  – because if I did, then I’d throw up a wall immediately between them and me, and all that emotional intimacy would vanish.  Oh, sometimes I try to add a coda near the bottom of the essay that says, “This is not universal” – but even though the disclaimer words are right in the essay, and I can quote them at you, people routinely ignore them.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told someone, “No, I said this wasn’t universal,” and quoted chapter and verse of the paragraph where I specifically disclaimed, and the commenter completely didn’t catch it.
Why?  Because by the time they got to the disclaimer, I’d invoked such strong emotions that they literally couldn’t see me saying this emotion didn’t apply to everyone. Yet the essays where I did  say “These feelings aren’t for everyone” so strongly that that message was part of the emotional impact often turned out to be so dry that they got no responses at all.
Which is the problem with writing: total clarity is the enemy of emotionality.  If you want to see writers struggling to express perfect, logical ideas, you need look no further than philosophy writings, where they attempt to wrangle every exception and clarify every vagueness. And in doing so, they take a hundred pages to express something that a more sensibly omitting piece of writing could do in a paragraph.  All of that truth bogs the writing down, loses us in a labyrinth of exceptions, makes us so concerned with “getting it right” that we never get it in the heart.  It’s true in an abstract sense, but it doesn’t feel true in the way a love poem does.
Hardly anyone reads philosophy to have emotions evoked.  For that, we turn to fiction.  (And note the “hardly anyone,” for doubtlessly someone will claim that they do read philosophy to be uplifted, thus proving my central point.)
Which is why I felt bad about arguing with my friend.  What she said was absolutely, 100%, positively true – I had not written something that applied to all submissives.  But she seemed to feel that failure made my essay was offputting, alienating, and as such it had failed as a whole.  To which all I could reply was, “Well, it wasn’t written for people like you.  It was written for people like them.  And they seem to be happy with it.”
Does that mean what I wrote was wise, or accurate, or even helpful?  No.  No, it doesn’t.  But it does mean that in terms of “reflecting the experiences of a subset of people,” it succeeded.  And as such, I can’t think of that essay as a complete failure – since the popularity of one of my essays doesn’t equal quality, but popularity often does equal “depicting some common experience that many people share.”
That’s just how writing is.  You can evoke a emotion in a subset of people, or you can be very clear about who this applies to and fail to connect with the people you’re hoping to reach.  And I wish there was a better way – but really, if there is, I have yet to find it.

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