Some weeks ago I was having breakfast and scrolling through an app on my phone, when for a fraction of a second I confused the “like” button for a different button. I mistakenly saw a gray heart icon hovering over the button marked “share.” I stopped, my egg sandwich lying half-eaten in a wrinkled nest of aluminum foil, and I wondered how adding a heart icon to every share, or tweet, or comment button might change what we shared. Maybe when our fingers hovered over that button, I thought, we’d pause for a breath and consider our motivations for sharing in the first place – whether we were doing it out of generosity, or for other reasons.
This memory came back to me when I read one reader’s reply to last week’s letter. The reader, Joan, shared with me an excerpt from a Zadie Smith’s essay about David Foster Wallace, entitled “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”. Smith quotes the late author (emphasis mine):
I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent … Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself than can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.
Talking out of love versus the desire to be loved. This is a profoundly simple observation that’s also an incredibly precise filter for identifying the intention behind one’s writing, or one’s actions in general.
The desired to be loved, I think, is a fundamental reason that when we first start out, we emulate our favorite writers, artists, heroes. Because we know the art they’ve created has received love: we’ve seen others give that love, and we have given it ourselves. And because we have seen their art receive love, we think that if we can imitate the style or technique or cleverness of the art, then we too can garner the same kind of love.
The desire to be loved is as valid a reason as any to start creating art, and it can be a powerful motivator, too. But it stifles the creation of good art. The desire to be loved is the baser of the two motivations. Talking out of the other – the part that can love – requires bravery. It requires making yourself vulnerable, stepping out into the unproven. Talking out of love means not expecting anything in return. Talking out of love is done with the understanding that merely talking out of love is enough.
It’s a share button with a heart on it.