I watched the most godawful movie the other day. It’s my fault, usually my 10-minute rule is pretty good. But somehow this one lasted beyond 10 minutes and we suffered through it. [New York, I Love You] With a cast of people who I generally like, an interesting soundtrack, and pretty good cinematography I had to think about why it was so terrible to watch. First, the stories were not compelling. They were overly dramatized in these long cinematic sequences.

It was smug. It was self-gratuitous.

It was like the film was masturbating right in front of our eyes. It was fully enjoying itself, in all its glory, parading around in its celebrities, music, and eye-candy. Well guess what, Hollywood, you clearly made this film for yourself and not us, the viewers. Not to mention the inaccuracies, which grate on a viewer like nothing else. NEVER in my life has anyone ever gotten into my cab; and I have never gotten into anyone else’s cab. Doesn’t happen. So, L.A., please don’t use that stupid scene again.

So it got me thinking about self-gratuitous art (elephant dung and Jesus pictures), and self-gratuitous music (5 minute long guitar solos), and self-gratuitous cooking (obscure, tasteless variations of offal with fruit combinations), and self-gratuitous dance. And of course, self-gratuitous writing.

What exactly do I mean by self-gratuitous? Being different just for the sake of being different, without any particular meaningful purpose is a component of this characterization. Or writing overly descriptive passages that don’t serve the story–or worse, divert from the character development or the story. When I took my first acting class, the instructor kept telling us not to act self-gratuitously. I had no idea what he meant and I was terrified of violating this cardinal rule, yet I didn’t know what to do to avoid doing so. Then I watched two guys do the seminal passage from Waiting for Godot and it was just dripping with an indescribable smugness that our instructor couldn’t even explain, but to stomp around and throw things and curse in Russian. It was then that I learned what it was to be smug on stage.

One could even argue that the beloved Chuck Bukowski wrote self-gratuitously. Certainly some poetry is self-gratuitous, serving only the writer in the secret code of meaning. Experimental writing walks a fine line; and self-gratuitous to one may be high art to another. But the discerning judgment lies with the reader, ultimately; and that is what should keep any writer (and artist, musician, filmmaker, fashion designer and dancer) staying on the right side of the self-gratuitous argument.

Gaining confidence in your art and writing shouldn’t necessitate smugness; but it also shouldn’t be a continuous struggle, right? As I get started on my new novel whose characters I’m absolutely in love with, I will keep that front of mind through the duration of my writing so they don’t become small details of masturbatory writing exercises.

This is a cross-posting from Jenn Topper‘s Don’t Publish Me! blog.