Until I read Lisa Gill’s “The Necessity of Navel-Gazing,” I had never heard the term before. Gill writes, “When personal essays and memoir degenerate into self-absorption, ‘navel-gazing’ is the term critics often level.” She then references a footnoted list called “The ABCs of Navel-Gazing” as she outlines her application of this technique inside the essay itself. So that what might be regarded as negative or stigma, Gill says, can help us further understand and relate to the human condition. She compares writing to science.
Scientists never underestimate the potential learning opportunity that is inherent in abnormality; medical breakthroughs often begin with careful examination of the break. Writers who engage in navel-gazing with the same scientific spirit of risk-taking and inquiry may also glean discoveries of merit.
So how can a written manifestation of this term be any better than the physical act itself? As a creative nonfiction writer, I often wonder how not to come off as a complete narcissist and the words “Who cares anyway?” forever plague me, similar to Tarn Wilson who, in “Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again,” laments her own “navel-gazing”:
I resist returning again to my parents as a topic. I feel repetitive, self-indulgent, small minded…un-evolved. Even worse, I fear I am imposing something unsavory on the reader, adding to the darkness in the world.
Since we nonfiction writers are not world-building but rather writing about what we know, it can
sometimes appear that there are no new angles of enlightenment on everyday issues such as the elderly parents or the dysfunctional family unit. But Gill, who suffers from a dysfunction in her body due to multiple sclerosis, shares how focusing on dysfunction can help us to appreciate the functioning things that we may take for granted. Wilson also has this to say about deciding whether or not to write about her hippy parents:
I know that when we write honestly and richly about our families, we also write cultural history.…And by understanding the stories we have inherited, we understand ourselves better…When we write again about our parents, we are not narcissists: we are adventurers in the interior of the human cosmos-we just happen to be exploring the closest galaxy.
Though the above is just a small excerpt, it illustrates the redeeming qualities that develop when we continue to write the same story. Almost like re-watching our favorite movie or re-reading our favorite book, we open ourselves up to the possibility of noticing something fresh and different that we may have missed before. If it is honest and pure, it is worth telling and re-telling. It is in fact brave to explore the “closest galaxy.” For therein lies vulnerability and a “cultural history” filled with glorious mistakes we can learn from. Narcissism is fundamentally the opposite. It doesn’t seek out error or flaws to correct. In a self-centered existence there is no one else, there is no imperfection, only endless gazing on one’s own reflection for gazing’s sake. No complex, engaging human condition can be found in that.
Below is an example from my own work called “My Father’s House.”
It’s the only one on the block with a dilapidated roof and unfinished porch. White paint
crackling around the windows and the missing railing, signs of illegal contractors and lost
hope. Somehow it still stands, third from the left at the intersection of Walnut and 18thstreets. Widener has made several offers despite the green foliage my father replaced with a now raggedy grey brick wall my mother protested. If my opinion counted for anything, I would have done the same.
While the family structure is somewhat universal, what is different in this example is how using the description of the house façade to parallel the parents’ marriage adds layers and dimension to what could read as an overdone subject. A house is something most people have experienced, and we come into the world through a set of parents. Whether they stay or not is another subject. Historical and factual evidence are given without a complete pity party. If we apply Gill’s “The ABC’s of Navel-Gazing,” we find that what is lacking is an opening with an absurd or humorous image to hook the reader and set tone and an expressed desire. Here is a slight revision.
It’s dejected, the only one on the block with a dilapidated roof and unfinished porch. White paint crackling around the windows and the missing railing, signs of illegal contractors and money thrown to the wind. Somehow it still stands, third from the left at the intersection of Walnut and 18thstreets. Widener has made several offers despite the green foliage my father replaced with a now raggedy grey brick wall my mother protested.
Everyone knows that houses don’t have feelings, but saying “it’s dejected” about an inanimate object–the family structure or shelter–adds an absurd introduction to the reader. The use of the word also relieves the second sentence’s ending with “lost hope”–because that is exactly what dejected means. Attributing characteristics and the description of the house gives the necessary backstory without being completely melodramatic. Desire is introduced but thwarted as we can gather in the last sentence where the mother’s protest is ignored. The reader gets the feeling that this is not the first nor is it the only time she has been silenced. And by leaving off the last pouty sentence, the reader is given adequate distance from the otherwise universal family portrait.
Here is another example, an excerpt from a piece called “You Again,” describing the effect of a mentally abusive relationship.
Has anyone seen your mind? Where did you have it last? Did you leave it in the hands of the last lover or the one before? You misplaced it somehow, along with a measure of your dignity and your smile. Remember your smile? It’s the beam your eyes used to dance on. Dance now? No.
The onslaught of questioning gives the reader a feeling of being disoriented. Below is a slight variation.
Your mind is missing. Has anyone seen it? Where did you have it last? Did you leave it in the hands of the last or the lover before him? You misplaced it somehow with a measure of your dignity and your smile. Remember your smile, the beam your eyes used to dance on? There’s no occasion for dancing now.
This passage can be viewed as even more self-indulging than the first one about parents, but what sets it apart is the language being internalized with the use of the second person
narrative. The reader is inside the mind of the abused victim rather than being told what the victim is thinking. By switching the point of view, the story becomes more attainable.
So, when employing effective “navel-gazing,” it can’t hurt to refer to “The ABCs of Navel-Gazing” mentioned by Gill below,or even changing the point of view to second person, which is tricky but could prove to be equally rewarding. It will be unexpected and may just mix things up for your reader.
- Open with an absurd or humorous image to hook reader and set tone.
- Incorporate research and provide necessary explanations.
- Self-implicate and document change.
- Express desire.
- Interact with an authority in the field and speculate.
- Establish credibility.
- Share common and potentially “universal” experiences.
- State personal concerns directly.
About the Author
Shamika Byrd is an accomplished and traveled singer and songwriter from Chester, PA. Shamika earned her bachelors degree in music from Eastern University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College.