A few weeks ago, my sophomore Honors English classes were studying The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. In preparation for our discussion, I explained to them the principles of the anti-Victorian Aesthetic Movement in England in the later part of the 19th century. We also read excerpts from the preface of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature.
I often discover new things about a text when I teach it again, and on occasion, I discover something new about myself and my own writing. In his preface, Pater wrote: “‘To see the object as in itself it really is,’ has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.”
Although I have read this quotation to students several times, until recently, I wasn’t prepared to understand what it meant in terms of my own writing, or more specifically, an attitude toward my own writing.
Most writers fear criticism for a variety of reasons. We fear it, because it points out flaws in our writing or in our ability. When I’m being honest with myself, this sort of criticism can benefit me and help me grow as a writer. However, we also fear criticism, because we don’t want to be misinterpreted. I struggle with this the most, because I want my work to communicate something specifc. At times, I want it to communicate a particular emotion; at other times, I want to show something about a type of character. Ultimately, I want my readers to feel what I want them to feel. When someone doesn’t feel it, I get frustrated.
Well, I think that I need to break away from that attitude a bit. The quotation from Walter Pater suggests that “to know one’s own impression as it really is” is to understand that for everyone beauty is a different, that taste isn’t absolute, and that you have to define for yourself what moves you.
So, when something I’ve written well doesn’t elicit the emotion from a reader that I hoped it would, I have to remember that everyone has a different definition of beauty. Therefore, when I write, I can’t get lost in wondering whether or not a particular chapter, scene, or moment will move everyone who reads it. I need to write it, because it authentically moves me. I simply can’t control how readers will react to my work.