How to express oneself when the expression doesn’t seem to express?

By Alex Trachsell

Illustration credit: Sanjan Randhawa

Alright, introspection time. Sometimes I feel like there’s some conflict or maybe a conviction deep inside me that I just need to express. Truly unique, I know.

The question is, how to express it? I could keep a journal, but that’s hardly something anyone else is interested in reading (and I don’t know why that makes a difference, but I suspect you understand). I could write a kind of op-ed! I already do those, so why not publish one to Alex T. Times?

Well, there’s something about just writing out my thoughts and opinions that doesn’t quite get across the emotions, the contradictions and the confusions. Simply describing these phenomena seems inferior to transferring them into a work of art which can express the phenomena back to other people or even to yourself. If you read a description of my thoughts and feelings you might think “Huh, relatable,” but you probably won’t feel much—you won’t actually share in the feelings. Knowing that kind of writing is not suited to bringing that kind of emotional understanding… well, it makes it seem less cathartic.

The issue comes when I consider actually writing something down. You see, writing, music, painting, film, etc. are all crafts that you have to practice to get good at. Painting and other visual arts seem particularly punishing to hacks like myself (which is why I’ll just use the more accessible “writing” as a shorthand for “artistic expression”). With this in mind, how can I expect myself to communicate what I want to with the level of accuracy I expect? Of course, one option that a lot of us take is to not write anything at all. You can’t fail if you never try, right? Alternatively, if you’re being peer pressured or forced into writing something (for school or otherwise), you might choose to write something completely detached from yourself. In this case it won’t matter if you fail to get across what you wanted because you didn’t really care in the first place. 

I came to know this process intimately when I had to write a poem for a high school English class (the project’s emphasis was on rhyming schemes, but we were encouraged to write something personal). Needless to say, my teacher was a little confused when I presented my poem professing my love for Jesus (already a little unusual) having gone the whole year without mentioning my belief in any religion. Of course, this was because I didn’t believe in any religion at the time. Nevertheless, religious love seemed like a fantastic topic because, when my poem was inevitably garbage, there was no love lost.

Of course, if you don’t want to just give up on finding an effective way of expression, you could just try to study the craft and learn before you do, but that can’t be the answer for everyone. If you’re a full time non-art student looking to learn an art as a hobby, then it’s unlikely that you’ll meet your expectations. After all, these expectations of acceptable art have probably been formed by the art we consume, which has likely been made by full-time artists, people with artistic training, and/or amateur artists with an unreasonable degree of passion for their craft. As such, it seems as though venturing into artistic expression comes with a cost: the quality of your work will fail to meet your expectations.

Now, one approach is to learn to overcome this cost and accept that you’ll disappoint yourself at first. However, I’ve never been one for paying necessary costs.  While we may be unable to change our expectations for our ability to imprint our thoughts and feelings into art, we can avoid this by expecting to get something entirely different out of artistic expression.

When you have something in mind that you want to translate to art, it’s easy to experience the let down of not seeing what you had in mind translated perfectly. In other words, you’re giving yourself a well-defined, but unattainable goal. If you instead set yourself a fuzzy, ill-defined goal or expectation, then you’ll have trouble envisioning a “perfect” result. Thus, the drive for perfection which made the thought of sub-par art painful is robbed of its force because now there is no “par.”

One such goal might be taking yourself less seriously. Use your art to pay homage to something you like, for example. It’ll be much easier to avoid envisioning “the perfect homage” compared to your personal thoughts and feelings, which are part of you and difficult to avoid by definition. Another way you could take your art less seriously is by making it one big joke.

For example, I play the bass guitar really badly, but I thought that there’s more entertainment value than just playing sloppy Joy Division basslines in my basement. If you’re aware of Joy Division, playing their basslines sloppily is quite the feat, but I thought there was more ironic entertainment to be mined from it. As such, I recruited some friends who shamelessly sing overtop music when I’m trying to enjoy it and a couple of amateur guitarists with a good sense of humour to play some music together (you may note that no drummer has been mentioned—we intend to use a crisp drum machine to contrast with our non-professional microphones and amateur musicianship).

Knowing that it won’t be good and knowing that we don’t know one thing about music production, we decided to record it entirely over a voice call (our band is called Discordance if you want a hint as to what platform we used). Bad internet connections mean we are/will be out of time and barely audible at times, but the goal is to laugh and that’s a task that’s harder to fail at than artistic perfection. So not only is the process and product rewarding as an expression of our sense of humour, but the process also makes us better at our craft without the cost of disappointment.

Another goal could be learning more about yourself. I would say “I’ve been known to write some edgy poetry and short stories,” but I keep that blackmail material well-hidden and would never even admit to its existence. In fact, the only reason I can write it is because it helps me explore myself rather than express myself, despite it being an expression of my self exploration. As I write, lines which don’t feel right jump back at me as foreign and out of place, so I often come away with at least knowing what I’m not.

Overall, there’s more to expressive art than expressing exactly what you know, think about or feel. You can express what comes natural to you (like your sense of humour) or stumble upon what you aren’t. While failure might be an unavoidable part of the artistic process, keep in mind that you can redefine failure by redefining your goals.

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