Writing, Vanity and Time By Milena Filipps

Writers – whoever they may be – mirror life by mirroring their thoughts, yet written pages always become more than a starting point for other people’s imagination. A starting point for something we don’t know. And while our vanity derives comfort from painting a naïve picture, simply implying that writers are in control of their motivation, their process, and its results – that writers understand writing – my essay is guided by a premise that hopes to be more prepared to face reality. Namely, that the whole process of writing from the slightest desire to write to the publication of a work and the reaction of its readers is the manifestation of a strain of historical moments no one will ever fully understand, even though writing has made them less fleeting by capturing words. Just like a memory, writin

g can have several meanings assigned to it, none of which will ever be complete. Writing is seen as the opposite, it is consciously or subconsciously perceived as something different every time, therefore made to be incomplete. With a historical perspective added to it, this premise leads to the idea I would like to introduce by examining the relationship between vanity and writing. The lifespan of a written work differs so much from our human path that the desire to reduce writing to the limits of one life seems absurd, even though one specific group of written works can never exist without one specific life.

It was implied above that the desire to write, as well as writing itself, publishing, and the act of reading, constitute the whole writing process. Those stages reach from its beginning to its final goal, from one person’s work to collaboration and further to becoming an audience’s object of discussion. However, a writer does not have to reach the end of this path to qualify as one. The presence of a clear destination is the main aspect of my observation on how writing is viewed in our time and culture, which one can argue with and which very well may change. Therefore, instead of constructing a better definition of writing, I will work with this observation as it provides writers and readers with a structure that organizes creation and communication. The following will present a few thoughts on how vanity defines writing in the present and how it fails to do so from a long-term perspective. If the goal is to take a closer look at the act of “creative writing,” one will have to regard the writer’s character, their emotional state, and the role of vanity. This does not mean that vanity has a negative impact on writing. As certain as it manifests itself in other forms of art, it cannot prevent any kind of writing from having value. So, what is the point of examining it then? Such a perspective will not redefine writing but remind us of what we already know: that writing is at the same time more than we think and less than what we picture it as.

Vanity and Writing can be seen as a choice. Rather than choosing Vanity or Writing, writers choose both vanity and writing or writing alone – that is to say: writing with just a little vanity, chosen perhaps, because of a peculiar kind of vanity that strives towards self-destruction. We choose without thinking and rarely know what we decided for ourselves. Maybe the choice is so evident that thinking about it would paralyze our minds, leaving no writing as a result. But perhaps we should think about our choices more – we should if hope is a better alternative to vanity.

It is time to examine the first side of this choice: Vanity and Writing. There are enough ways to point out the benefits of the former, the most obvious of which is to mention the necessity of ambition. You have to be ambitious to achieve anything, it is said. You have to dream of being a bestselling author to gather motivation to write well, to practice, to learn characterization techniques, to improve, all that. Those rules we adhere to today result from the idea of a measurable success, measured by modern criteria, such as the acceptance by a prominent publisher, a large number of readers, and sales. In this way, ambitions put writing in the context of the present and the present alone. We do not know how the values of our society will change, we cannot share values that do not yet exist, and we cannot dream of something that becomes worth dreaming of one hundred years from now. We are creatures of the present, and so is our vanity. Meanwhile, our writing's attachment to our time lies in its' content and language, but never in its' meaning.

By upholding dreams, vanity supports writing. When dreams present an idea of the future, they show us a better version of the present. As fleeting as it may be, the present is the only time we can truly know – or, more precisely: the present is the only time we are known to. While studying the past, historians are guided by current interests and methods. The challenges and the present mentality are our starting points for imagining the future. And while the past is bound to remain silent unless spoken to, the future is only waiting to correct us in a way we cannot predict.

Confined to the present, vanity can motivate writing by directing the writer’s attention towards publication and the prestige that may come with it. But vanity is not that simple; vanity does not always seek recognition, money, or other things that are found outside oneself. Vanity can enter a closer relationship to writing by deriving the reason for its existence from the act of writing, not necessarily accompanied by the prospect of publication. Our choice becomes that of writing, and a little vanity as one’s vanity now seems dependent on writing. Then it might be confronted with the painful realization that other people write too and perhaps better. It starts looking for explanations why one’s writing is still unique, why we are special, and why our vanity provides a perfectly reasonable assessment of ourselves. Even if writing is a source of self-esteem - how can we not fear that we are more trivial than we think? Competition and comparison to others and their writing – what is writing then? A tool to provide consolation to a self-conscious creature of the present? Does it not, whenever it has a purpose, accept only a secondary role as a battlefield of our very common human struggles? Therefore again (though more subtly), reduced by vanity to serve a time it will survive.

There are a lot of writers, I believe, who write for recognition, for money, for some sort of prestige, or even to gain self-esteem. Those most obvious examples show how vanity becomes a factor in one’s writing process, as vanity is easily attached to things as fragile as itself and the things stated above are the most fragile I can think of. Our fragility that implies the eternity of something else, our fragility that cannot be seen without the concept of eternity existing, is by no means a new discovery but rather the return to an old one. We forget it so often that forgetting appears almost necessary. Yet this knowledge is contained in such terms as vanitas or the famous memento mori or, more specifically, in Friedrich Schiller’s idea of the encounter between an artist and Time that has been a source of inspiration for this essay.[1]

Writing in itself or Art, in general, does not belong to a time we can shape. To explain this, I return to the definition of writing or art as a manifestation of a strain of historical moments in a product made to be incomplete. Just as we never know the meanings the future will assign to our writing, a writer cannot know their process of writing in its entirety. Just as it is impossible to fully know oneself, to fully understand why we chose this word and not another one at some point, how we make thousands of choices repeatedly and what influenced those choices. Subconscious impressions can exist in our works. They used to be fleeting historical moments that are now written down on paper, therefore able to assume new meanings and contemporary contexts; capable of being measured with new criteria, considered a classic or being forgotten. Writing is flexible and dependent on change. It arises from our character, yet is never limited to it or the time that created its mentality.

In our perception, the future and the past are never as detached from the present as they truly are. Our idea of the present is what we as a society can control. The notion that vanity needs to live and suffer is that of a present as a place with its structure involving a direction in which we move. The latter is defined by the goals vanity chooses to reach, as shown above, such as publication or writing itself. Vanity cannot do anything but fit writing into this narrow place of comfort, creating the illusion that writing naturally inhabits it as we do.

This essay does not intend to portray vanity as a negative character trait. It is [1] a natural part of ourselves that we should reflect on, as it can be beneficial to our work just as it can cause damage. At the same time, writing is allowed to be egocentric, as it is never about temporary rules or genres – it is all about language because language is the only fundamental part of it accessible to our understanding. It is a language that belongs to us, and will someday leave us behind on its incomprehensible journey.

If I wanted to criticise the current state of literature instead of observing it, my criticism would be this: by focusing on aspects of writing rooted in the present, we forget to consider its historical dimension. We forget to consider that writing is more permanent than our current idea of success and even more permanent than the spoken language it does not fully conserve, as meanings of words tend to shift over centuries. The combination of vanity and writing becomes problematic when it distracts from the perspective of our work’s long-term effects, raising the importance of short-term results instead of questions: how does our writing affect literature? What is literature? What rules does it follow, and will it always stay true to them? What idea of literature does our work represent? Should this idea be known to people one hundred years from now? Should something be added to it? What can we control? What should we control? Why do we want control? Is art a source of freedom because it is incomprehensible? Should we accept and cherish the mysterious or try to understand it instead? Those questions arise when we reflect on our vanity, and further thinking leads to the realization that we will never truly answer them. Unanswered questions have a different value: they remind us of our narrow present from which art breaks free on the future’s terms.


P.S. What is the paradox of this essay? It leaves nothing to chance, i.e., Time, as it aspires to be published too.

[1] Cf. Schiller, Friedrich: Ueber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reyhe von Briefen [1. Teil; 1. bis 9. Brief./Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Part 1, Letters 1-9]. In: Friedrich Schiller (Ed.): Die Horen, Band 1, 1. Stück. Tübingen 1795, S. 45. [A digitalized version can be found here: Deutsches Textarchiv. Grundlage für ein Referenzkorpus der neuhochdeutschen Sprache. Herausgegeben von der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 2022. URL:].

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