The Empty Word and the Full Word

Success in writing creatively is linked to the notion of "finding a voice" and this is turn is explored through psychoanalytic notions, including Lacan's idea of the "full word" (parole pleine). Writing blocks are also considered from a psychoanalytic perspective. The essay is intended for teachers of creative writing, and creative writing students.

Atkinson, K. (1995) Behind the Scenes at the Museum. London: Doubleday.

Barthes, R. (1972) `Death of the author.' In Image, Music, Text. Trans. and edited S. Heath. London: Fontana.

Freud, S. (1976) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. and edited A. Tyson. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory. London: Macmillan.

Harre, R. and Madden, E. (1975) Causal Powers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. Trans. J. Macquarrie and J. Robinson. London: SCM Press.

Hunt, C. (1997) `Finding a voice exploring the self: autobiography and the imagination in a writing apprenticeship.' In Auto/Biography 1, 3, 169 179.

Kivy, P. (1980) The Corded Shell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lukacs, G. (1975) The Young Hegel. Trans. R. Livingstone. London: The Merlin Press.

MacNeice, L. (1988) Selected Poems. M. Longley (ed). London: Faber and Faber.

Phillips, A. (1993) On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber and Faber.

Wilden, A. (1967) The Language of the Self. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Wollheim, R. (1987) Painting as an Art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Lightly edited 2003 from the version appearing under the same title in Celia Hunt and Fiona Sampson, editors, The Self on The Page. Theory and Practice of Creative Writing in Personal Development, pages 153 - 163. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1998. Copyright material reproduced by permission of the publishers, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


I am afraid that my beginning is hardly a contemporary possibility. For I imagine myself setting off with my companions on a journey of discovery and, for convention's sake, I imagine that we shall travel up the Amazon and that among our many hopes is that of discovering a tribe previously lost or unknown to those who make such journeys of discovery.

It is within our power to plan our journey and equip ourselves with everything needful within the limits of current technologies. But there are things that may befall us on the way, such as disease and attacks by less than friendly natives, which we may foresee as possibilities but which it is not within our power to control. Some things we can do, but some things just happen to us.

Solid preparatory research may maximise our chances of discovering a tribe, previously unknown or at some point lost to our culture, but it is not within our powers to guarantee that we achieve our goal. If we knew exactly where we were going and what we were going to find, there would be no voyage of discovery to undertake. In the end we may find a tribe, but when we do so, most likely we will congratulate ourselves on our good fortune, our luck rather than our powers to conjure human beings out of the jungle. We may even exclaim that we can't believe what is happening to us.

If we don't find a tribe, we may console ourselves by writing travel narratives, perhaps fictional ones. Lack of discovery is the mother of invention. After all, were we sponsored by a rich and curious patron, he may prefer to read a fanciful account of tribes we have invented for his pleasure than witness us return empty handed. The feelgood factor has a long history in anthropological research.

When we sit down to write fictions, we may also hope to discover something about ourselves on the way, and may even have that as an aim (courses of study exist now in therapeutic writing, for example). But we may not discover anything about ourselves, and may achieve no more than the writing of a fiction. In parallel, aiming only to write fiction, with no hope or aim other than that, we may nonetheless chance upon moments of self discovery, as when we suddenly remember something about our lives that we had not thought about for so long that it appears to us as lost and forgotten. It is little different when reading an autobiographical fiction of childhood that evokes memories of our own past. If you are the right age, British, and reading Kate Atkinson'sBehind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), the words `Andy Pandy', `Bill and Ben' and `The Coronation' are triggers to reminiscence.

Self discovery is not something of which we can assure ourselves by careful planning and, by definition, whatever it is that is lost or unknown in ourselves cannot be known in advance of the journeys including fictional journeys we undertake. A discovery is a discovery is a discovery. This means, among other things, that we may be surprised by what we find and may not like it one little bit.

But do we really make self discoveries as anthropologists have indeed discovered lost and unknown tribes? Isn't the philosophical realism that there is something In Here something inner and true, waiting to be discovered untenable as an account of our relationship to ourselves? How can I write blithely of self discovery when all around me I read that (really? essentially?) all we can reasonably hope for is self invention, self improvisation, plausible story telling, in which the frontier between truth and fiction is not so much transgressed as abolished? (I think, for example, of how such positions influence the writings of Adam Phillips (Phillips 1993).

This little binary opposition between self discovery and self invention is so neat that it really ought to arouse at least a little deconstructive suspicion, and the search for a third term.

When I sit down to write a story (I don't know about you; you may be better organised) it would be true to say that I make it up as I go along (and I want it to be obvious that I made up this essay as I went along). Classical rhetoric presented three aspects of speaking and writing as if they were temporally ordered. So invention (inventio - having ideas) precedes organisation (dispositio - beginnings, middles and ends) and that precedes the actual business of speaking or writing well (elocutio - phrasing and sentence structure). And it is easy to let this pass. But then we have allowed ourselves to be taken in by a very misleading picture. A much better picture would have it that invention and organisation go on in the elocution - in the acts of speaking or writing (and analogous acts in other symbolic fields such as music and painting). There is no essential temporal ordering. The rhetorical tripartition is analytic, not a classification of an essential order of real time events.

Only in the enactment do the ideas and organisation become embodied, and disembodied they are of limited interest. Nobody offers creative writing courses in the writing of synopses. But, from the other side, this is also to say that there is not only enactment (elocutio). Invention and disposition are also visible (or, rather, lisible) in the enactment obviously, a novel can be praised as inventive or commended for its plot structure.

I'm going to pin my hopes on enactment as a possible middle term which may help avert a rather silly war between the advocates of self discovery and the advocates of self invention. It may allow us to see that self discovery is not (essentially) about introspection, and that what is often called self invention is (actually) self enactment. For enactment to do the job I want, I also have to draw a distinction between something which I shall call the empty word and something which in contrast I shall call the full word (see the second section for the source of this distinction).

If we are unhealthy, we may (we are told and I believe it to be true) act out unresolved psychological conflicts in our behaviour. Acting out is something to which we areliable, rather than something of which we are capable to use a distinction I owe to the work of Rom Harre (Harre and Madden 1975) and it can happen to us (and those with us) anywhere: in the living room, the bedroom, the seminar room, the consulting room. I think that we can also act out in our writing, albeit in often obscure ways. Acting out is both full and empty. It is indeed filled up with something coming from inside us (from our mental life), but it is empty in that in it we lose ourselves as agents, as responsible beings, as individuals capable of reflexively monitored action. We are blind to what we are doing and to who we are. (The idea of reflexively monitored action comes from Giddens 1979.)

Now, there are desperate measures which individuals can take to bring acting out under (apparent) reflexive control, so that it at least begins to look like something they are doing rather than something which is happening to them and of which they are ashamed and embarrassed or for which they will be punished. We call these desperate measures by such names as rationalisation, self deception, projection and denial. Just as the acting out is full of us, so these measures are empty of us: the very meaning of `rationalisation' is that it is the giving of a reason which is a pseudo reason, a false reason, an empty reason. Characteristically, when we rationalise we draw on the socially available stock of acceptable excuses for bad behaviour. In other words, we go right outside to try to make ourselves acceptable, to ourselves and to others. Lost in the original acting out we lose ourselves again in the rationalisation by means of which we try to recuperate ourselves to ourselves and integrate ourselves with others.

We move away from acting out and rationalisation to the extent that we can begin to express what we feel, say what we mean and mean what we say. We may need psychotherapy to help us achieve that, and so we can characterise the object of psychotherapy as helping us towards a full word an enactment of self which does not leave us split from our feelings, including our oldest and most difficult feelings.

Some people are split from their feelings yet give no obvious sign of acting out. But there are such things as empty game playing, empty story telling, shallow inventions of self which all have a rather obvious history. The archaeology of these frivolities is always to be found in the repression of passion, of seriousness and of play. The sceptical and deconstructive turns in post modernism are, in this sense, frivolous.

What has all this got to do with writing?

There is a craft task in writing which can be discharged more or less well, producing a more or less well crafted story. We can award marks, if we need to, for invention, disposition and elocution. Good marks mean that we are satisfied that the work is well formed. But at another level, we may be dissatisfied with a piece of work which stylistically is `all right'. And we may find ourselves having recourse to that metaphor which transgresses the boundary between speech and writing, and asking whether the writer has (yet) `found their voice'.

My central claim is that the distinction between writing which lacks some important factor x and writing with a found voice can be connected to the distinction between the empty and the full word.

Finding a voice is something which can only be achieved and confirmed in enactment you don't find your voice by silently soliloquising. You find your voice by doing something with your voice. For a writer, finding a voice is about writing with feeling (see Hunt 1997). It is about achieving a sureness of touch which allows a reader to animate the bare text with a feeling tone and to go on reading with a sense that the author in the text is not going to go out of their emotional depth, even though they may lead us into waters which we find difficult and murky. A writer is also a guide. Together we are searching for lost and unknown tribes of experience, and for human beings experience is always felt experience. We don't just see the sunrise, we are elated by it; we don't just watch the sea raging, we are awed by it. (Able to mobilise such images out of nature, film is apt to evoke our strongest feelings and emotions.)

Does this emphasis on such sublime feelings as elation and awe beg a question? Why shouldn't we be looking for fictions of experience which are more inventive than I am suggesting, fictions which surf the phenomenal rather than plumb the depths?

The phenomenal is part of our experience, and close observation of it part of the talent and training of the writer as well as, for example, the painter. But the Impressionists - to take an obvious example - are more than painters of the surface play of light on light reflective surfaces. They are painters of mood and vision, and their paintings are consequently animated with a feeling tone. If they were not, they would be that much the less interesting. So it is with writers. That is why, for example, Marxist critics (beginning with Lukacs (Lukacs 1975)) have consolidated a distinction between realist and naturalist writing. The latter may be politically correct (as in Zola), but fails to hold us because it is too much surface and not enough depth. Given the choice between politically correct naturalism and incorrect realism (such as he finds in Balzac), Lukacs' vote goes to the latter (as does that of Roland Barthes (Barthes 1972)).

Inadvertently (I said I was making this up as I went along), I have in the preceding two paragraphs twice used the idea of something animated with a feeling tone. This idea comes to me from the work of Richard Wollheim and Peter Kivy (Kivy 1980; Wollheim 1987). They say that an unlearnt ability (or liability) of human beings is their capacity to see one thing in another. At one level, this is the capacity to see the Man in the Moon and the face in the fire. At another level, it is the capacity to see a landscape as melancholy, a sunflower as joyful. We are also liable to see such qualities in a work of art, not least when they are expressed there. So the music strikes us as sad or lively, the painting as gloomy, the novel as anguished. In Peter Kivy's terms, we animate the art work with a feeling tone. But when we do this, we do it (I want to say, and I am wondering if I can get beyond the standard metaphor) from inside ourselves, whether as makers of the art work or as audience for it. We reach into that vast reservoir which is our experience and all that has happened to it and all that we have made of it, connecting it and framing it.

I realise that this is rather in the form of an empirical claim, and not universal in scope. I can imagine the case in which someone, lacking the experience they need for an artistic task, reaches out to books or conversations for their material indeed, that is a common enough aspect of writing. For example, I've written a story called Creteand, never having been there, I used a handbook for the names and descriptions of wild flowers needed for the story I wanted to write. Roland Barthes, in the famous essay `Death of the Author' (Barthes 1972), wants us to see such ways of working as at the heart of the (modern) writer's work, so that the (good) writer is really a scriptor - someone who `no longer bears with him passions, humours, feelings, impressions', but rather an `immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt' (p 147).

But the scriptor's strategy looks less plausible in relation to basic ways of experiencing the world either we have those ways available to us, or at least analogues of those ways, or we are at a loss. If we have never experienced profound depression (let us say), either in ourselves or in another, I find it hard to see how from books or conversations we could do much more than mimic it in an artistic work, rather than express it fully and that means that while an audience might catch our drift, they would not get to the point of unwilled animation of the work with its appropriate feeling tone. And to that extent, they would remain unsatisfied. (This paragraph could be connected to the extensive discussion in philosophical aesthetics of the concept of the "perfect forgery") .

Likewise, where experience has been subject to repression, we are denied reflexive access to it: that's what the word implies. We can act out in ways driven by the continuing psychic efficacy of repressed material, but we cannot enact it. So the repression blocks us either creatively as writers or imaginatively as readers. It is not immediately obvious to me that the experience of reading has much to do with the undoing of repression (though I think a case could be made out for this). In contrast, the experience of trying to write like that of trying to talk in a psychoanalysis can return repressed material to consciousness. It then has to be dealt with by the person whose repressed material it is, if it is to be shaped into writing. But just as I wanted to deny that the tripartition of invention, disposition and elocution represented a necessary chronological ordering, so I want to suggest that it may be that repressed material which comes to the surface in the course of writing may be dealt with (worked through) in the writing itself. The working through does not have to be anterior to or exterior to the writing. This is to imply that at some points what we distinguish as the psychologically individual author or writer, on the one hand, and the implied textual author or imagined fictive narrator, on the other, may be operating simultaneously and in the same words. We then have two faces to the same text.

One of the things which art therapists of all kinds have discovered, following on from the diagnostic use of play in child psychoanalysis, is that repressed material can often be accessed and worked through symbolically that is to say, by means of non literal representations. In her essay `Finding a Voice Exploring the Self', Celia Hunt has shown how the inventive use of a metaphor of the circus, which liberates repressed or semi repressed material in the context of fiction writing, is then carried over by the author and becomes successfully used as an extended metaphor in talking about her own (`real') life (Hunt 1997).

The line of thinking developed in the preceding paragraphs is intended not so much to contradict 'Death of the Author' theorising - which in the past 30 years has insisted on the autonomy of the literary text in relation to its psychologically real author - but rather to make this simple point: that literary texts are double faced.

On the one face, they are indeed works of art which have left behind their real creators: as Roland Barthes puts it, `writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin' (Barthes 1972, p.139). As such, writing possesses expressive qualities and internal properties (formal, relational properties) which we can value aesthetically. But on the other face, the words of the literary text can appear as expressive of the life of the psychologically real author, and serve as evidence for the character and opinions of that author.

So it is quite possible to read a literary text, now from one side, now from the other; we can Gestalt switch our mode of attention. Barthes, and the many others who have written in the same vein, could be taken as trying to show us how not to get our modes of attention mixed up.

And it remains true under this view of the literary text as double faced, that it is a failing in a literary work of art that it obliges us to eke out a literary reading with biographical data about the author. There is, for example, poetry (such as the early poems of Louis MacNeice (see MacNeice 1988) I owe the example to Laura Dunn) which is too `private' in that its line by line meaning can only shine when we bring to bear knowledge of quite specific detail of the poet's biography. When that is the case, the poetry is rightly judged unsatisfactory.

There is, of course, nothing in my commitment to an idea of self discovery through writing that says that you can only talk literally about yourself, and never metaphorically. That would do no more than rationalise another kind of obsessional neurosis. But our power to invent metaphors to talk about ourselves does not mean that we invent ourselves, nor does it mean that metaphor is not subject to the discipline of truth. To judge a metaphor as apt is to engage in the same kind of activity as to judge a literal statement as true. And metaphors are made to be so judged. One interesting fact about metaphors which liken life to a journey, and narratives which chronicle real and imaginary travels, is that the metaphor and the forms never become tired. They remain apt ways of expressing something important about human life.

To think as I am thinking is to be humanist about human beings and humanist about art. It is to say that human life is not (essentially) a fiction, and that fictions are (essentially) about human lives. Where else might one find such humanism expressed?


As an epigraph to Section 1 of his 1953 Rome Discourse Fonction et Champ de la Parole et du Langage en Psychanalye Jacques Lacan inscribes this prayer from L'Internelle Consolacion: 'Donne en ma bouche parole vraie et estable et fay de moy langue caulte' (Give me a true and stable word in my mouth and make of me a cautious tongue' Anthony Wilden's translation in The Language of the Self (1967)).

Lacan uses this epigraph as a way of introducing a distinction between the empty word and the true or full word, and this in turn defines the aspiration of psychoanalysis to enable the emergence of Truth in the Real.

Empirical reality includes the rationalisations, projections, denials and disavowals which make our words empty rather than full as expressions of a personal Truth. Empirical reality is not (in Lacan's Hegelian vision) the Real, for the Real is the Rational where everything is what it ought to be.

Personal Truth (Truth in the Real) is not to be thought of as the acquisition of new knowledge (for example, theoretical knowledge couched in the language of psychoanalysis), but rather as the recognition of what we already know, but only unconsciously. As Lacan puts it, in Wilden's translation: `The unconscious is that chapter of my history which is marked by a blank or occupied by a falsehood: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be found again; it is most often already written down elsewhere' (Wilden 1967, p.21) for example, written down as neurotic symptom.

Such recognition is best looked upon not as something ever fully achievable the unconscious always slips away from us but as a rational endeavour towards something which is only achievable asymptotically. The notion of asymptote could be rendered as deferral, and some connection thereby made with more recent strands of sceptical, anti Realist thought (notably Jacques Derrida's).

Outside of psychoanalysis, twentieth century philosophers have also utilised distinctions between the empty and the full word. For example, Heidegger in Being and Time(1962) a major reference point for Lacan uses the concept of Gerede (idle talk) to define `a discoursing which has lost its primary relationship of Being towards the existent talked about, or else has never achieved such a relationship' (cited in Wilden 1967, p.201).

What I have done in this essay is no more than to suggest an extension and application of this kind of thinking to the processes and results of literary endeavour, suggesting that the traditional notion of `finding one's voice' is an analogue of Lacan's full word. In turn, Lacan's full word plays the part in his thought that the idea of the True Self plays in Donald Winnicott's. Lacan's Empty Word is Winnicott's False Self. So the connections I am making are not just to one version of psychoanalysis, but are meant to be more general in resonance.

To pursue the analogy with psychoanalysis is to say that finding a voice just is the emergence of Truth or a True Self in the Real of writing. It is something only asymptotically achievable.

But writing need not carry a voice at all: it can be blank or filled up with empty signifiers. Such writing we may end up calling `vacuous' or `flaccid' or `lifeless' or even `insincere', however emphatically it may be expressed. A writer, for example, can be earnestly insincere in ways little different from those of the soulful politician or the seductive hysteric.

To wish to be a writer does not suffice to enable one to write, and to enable writing in someone else is not just a matter of offering them craft instruction. The writer must be able to write out of the fullness of his or her history, measuring choices of word and theme against that history. It follows that if the writer is in some measure not available to himself or herself to measure the writing, then the writing will itself be unmeasured, and judged accordingly.

In writing one is at a sort of double jeopardy: that one may find oneself blocked expressively, unable to write a full word, and blocked critically, unable to bring critical candour to what one has succeeded in putting on paper. It is usually only the former problem which receives attention; consider instead the latter.

In writing, just as in speaking, the unconscious finds a way to express itself Freud gives examples in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Freud 1976), though obviously we have to do with much more than slips of the pen. Now, to be blocked critically is to be in the position of being unable to integrate what we have unconsciously expressed into our conscious plan of writing. But that does just mean that we are in the position of not being able critically to control our writing, which to that degree remains unmeasured. In my view, an inability to bring one's `critical faculties' (as we call them) to bear on one's writing is just as much a writing block as the primary inability to get any words on to the blank paper before one.

There is a further possibility of blockage caused by hypertrophy of the critical faculties which leads one to reject everything one writes. Such hypertrophy is like a punitive super ego, a vigilant censor committed to extinguishing every last flicker of self expression.

In summary, there are at least four obstacles readily identifiable as obstacles to the emergence of Truth in Writing, to the emergence of a voice:

  • 1. primary inability to write (writer's block)
  • 2. secondary inability to find a voice in and through one's writing
  • 3. inability to bring critical judgement to bear as one writes or in reviewing what one has written
  • 4. hypertrophy of the critical faculties, slowing the flow of words or leading to their too ready consignment to the wastepaper basket.

Put differently, what I have done is to compare the practice of writing and the conditions and nature of successful writing, to the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. The page is a blank just as the psychoanalyst is a blank, and as a blank invites the transference of the writer, in which the writer's other seeks out its other. Writing is apt as a place for the expression of need, desire, wish and demand. But if a writing is to be successful, all four need, desire, wish, demand have in some sense to be measured, to be compassed, by the author.

In a psychoanalysis, the analyst is paid to listen for the moments in which the Truth has a chance of emerging into the Real, and to encourage such moments. In writing, it is we who have to pay ourselves to recognise such moments and to elaborate them and, equally, to cancel and to put into the wastepaper basket the empty words, the junk, which compete to blind us to such unknown and lost tribes of experience as it may be our good fortune to discover and rediscover on our narrative journeys.