Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Significant to whom?

This is a brief follow up to the post on significance from a few days ago.

Then I mentioned different levels of significance as places to look for significance. What I want to add has to do with the inherently personal nature of significance: significance is a matter of perspective. Different people have different ideas about what is significant. This can be worth remembering when it comes time to write.

I was talking with a writer today about the significance of her work. And when she had stated a personal sort of significance for her work, she commented that she didn't feel like she could use that significance for her paper. I agreed but it seems to me that it's one thing to recognize why something is important to you, and another thing altogether to try and convince others of that significance.

If you can recognize a personal significance for a work, that may be a good reason to motivate a project, even if you're going to try to present it to others as having a different kind of significance.

On one hand, having this split significance--the story you tell yourself, and the story you tell others--could be interpreted as hypocrisy. On the other, the fact that you are motivated for personal reasons doesn't mean that there isn't a reason that is truly significant to others that may be important.

For example, many environmentalists espouse vegetarianism because of the high environmental cost per calorie of meat as compared to the environmental cost per calorie of vegetable. The fact that a person is vegetarian for environmental reasons doesn't mean that another person--one who believes in animal rights, or one opposed to killing, as suggested by Buddhist principles--cannot appreciate to value of the vegetarian's behavior. The fact that the environmentalist and the Buddhist place the major significance on different aspects of the vegetarianism does not mean that either of the motivations is somehow corrupt.

When we're working on a writing project, it may make sense to recognize that the significance that we find in our own work may not be the most significant aspect of the work in the eyes of others, and it may make sense to focus attention on the significance that others find in it. Writing. after all, is about reaching other people, and reaching them doesn't mean blindly remaining intent on your own purposes, it usually means trying to connect with their purposes. And that's not hypocrisy, that's respect and perhaps empathy.

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