I understand where Alan Jacobs is coming from with yesterday’s post, but I want to register a bit of a dissent – not on behalf of “self-expression,” whatever that might be, but on behalf of self-discovery, and the making of art as part of the quest for same.

Jacobs starts out by quoting Annie Dillard on the subject of sentences, connecting it with Auden’s poem about vocation and keeping the eye on the object. But think about Dillard’s answer. She doesn’t ask, “are you good at crafting sentences?” She asks: “do you like sentences.” She is saying, in so many words: don’t do this unless you love the craft. You won’t keep your eye on the object unless you do. That love is an aspect of self, and the suggestion is that you need to know yourself well enough before committing to such a life to know whether you might have enough love in you, as well as enough talent.

When people say, “follow your heart,” that probably isn’t what they mean. They probably mean to suggest that whatever you wish you were, that’s what you can be, if you only want it badly enough. And that’s not true, not only because not all of us have the talent, but because not all of us really want the thing itself. Indeed, most of the people I know who “want” to write aren’t writers, because they don’t want to write – they want the idea of being a writer. Which isn’t the same thing at all. The problem isn’t that they are or aren’t following their hearts; the problem is that they don’t truly know their hearts.

I agree with Jacobs that art is mostly made “in the zone,” when the self disappears as a focus of attention. This is also called getting out of your own way, and I find it very, very hard – self-consciousness runs very deep in me. But self-consciousness is really just a way of protecting yourself from yourself, from the possibility that what you say when you stop self-censoring will not be what you think you want to say, nor even what you want to hear.

Jacobs is attentive to the risks of the Romantic conceit that we’ve all got an artist locked up inside waiting to be let out, and I imagine he’s read enough undergraduate work to justify his attention to this fallacy. And his emphasis on craft, and on attention to the thing itself and not to your desires, is the proper corrective to that conceit. When I decided to follow my heart, and pursue a writing career, I started out writing screenplays in part because I loved movies, but in part because screenwriting is a very formal kind of writing, and I thought, with my discipline problems, that I would be well-served by the strictures of form. And I believe I have. But as a screenwriter, I’m acutely aware that there is a formalist Scylla to the Romantic Charybdis, a conceit that formal craft is all that matters in art. Jacobs may not come across that conceit often in his world, but in the screenwriting game it is rampant.

I don’t even mean particularly in genre pictures that are intended to be formulaic, though it’s a problem there as well. Writers in all genres are advised, repeatedly, to impose “solutions” on stories that don’t spring from them organically, that are based not on a deep understanding of the thing being created but on some canned notion of what “works.” But it’s not just a matter of bad advice for young or starting writers – some of the most highly-regarded practitioners of the screenwriting art in our time, from Quentin Tarantino to Joss Whedon, strike me as devotees of this kind of formalism, and their work strikes me as alarmingly cold and soulless.

Speaking for myself, I am most moved by a work not when it impresses me with its clockwork perfection but when it reveals its soul, and a soul worth knowing. That soul is an emanation, if not an “expression,” of the artist, and it is only going to get there if, consciously or not, the artist has access to his or her own soul.

Gaining that access is frequently no fun at all, which is probably why the “follow your heart” brigades don’t tend to talk in those terms. But it’s the hard truth behind their pretty platitudes.