Thoughts on Sincerity

In strands of U.S. American culture, there’s a strong prejudice against (or fear of) sincerity, a kind of knee-jerk preference for knee-jerk irony. You are supposed to say things, even in art, with a slight roll of the eyes, a sense of knowing better. On the other hand, Americans love public confessions, media-sponsored personal revelations, and so forth. But if you show your feelings, you will often get the response that you were too open, too sincere, too emotional, too naive, or whatever else might accompany the “too.”

In art, if you just pour out your feelings, without putting it in form, you will end up with something mediocre. That’s a mistake novice poets often make, writing from the heart without attention to form and language. On the other hand, if you are so bent on not writing from the heart that you stumble over yourself to be clever, you will end up with something even worse. The fear of sincerity is more dangerous than sincerity’s excesses.

There are cultural differences when it comes to sincerity. In Hungary, for instance, if you ask people how they are, they will often actually tell you (up to a point). It is not considered inappropriate to share personal information. Granted, there are exceptions, variations, and limits, like anywhere, not to mention human nature, but I have found tolerance for things beyond the superficial.

This is not to say that I feel in all ways more at home here than in the U.S. There are many things I miss, and many ways in which I will never fully belong here. For instance, being a single, unmarried woman at my age (and one who isn’t seeking marriage) is quite unusual here, whereas in the U.S. it isn’t; even my married friends don’t perceive it as such. That’s a different subject–I just mean that I’m not trying to say “everything is great here.” It isn’t. I love living here and plan to stay permanently, but the country is far from perfect, as is my own life.

But I have relaxed so much into myself since coming here. Part of it has to do with sincerity. It just isn’t looked down upon. Letting people get to know me doesn’t come with the reaction “Whoa…. too much information.” It’s permissible, in many ways (not all ways), to be yourself.

When it comes to art, there’s so much room, and so much need, to be open within the form: to make it beautiful and also open up into it, even more than you can in real life, at much higher levels. It isn’t everyday sincerity—it’s something different, maybe truer, maybe humbler, becoming part of something else. That is part of what I love in the music of Cz.K. Sebő—who is playing a concert on May 28!—and Kolibri, and Platon Karataev, and Art of Flying, and others. It’s only a part; there’s so much more to say, and so much that isn’t easily said, but it’s there.

I have been writing a lot of stories this year. I don’t post them on the blog, because I am submitting them for publication. One of them, “Immemorial,” appears in the inaugural issue of the bilingual Budapest journal The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság. Others are awaiting decisions from various journals. There’s always something in the works. But I think there’s much more coming, not just in terms of volume, but in terms of content and form. In some way, I have been holding things in for years and years, but also not; I have been writing since childhood, but didn’t try hard enough to get the poems and stories published. Now is the time. The poems, unfortunately, I have usually posted online, with the result that they’re now considered “published” and ineligible for publication elsewhere. But there will be more.

And translations, and music. I am shy about the music, but just recently I returned to Marcel Feldmar’s lovely review of my 2000 CD Fish Wigs Hats Rats (a somewhat clumsy, mostly homemade venture). It appears in Issue 49 of the wonderful music magazine The Big Takeover. I couldn’t have wishes for words that were more appreciative.

As I have said elsewhere, I wish I had taken more time to get the album right: to treat the current one as a draft and then re-record the real thing.

So that’s really where these morning thoughts are heading: that sincerity is part of the picture, only part, but an essential part, and then you work and work to get it just right, so that every piece belongs, every second essential. People do this in different ways: some work more spontaneously, whereas others take their work through many stages and layers of revision. There is no single “writing process,” which is why I often get bored with discussions of the subject. You find out what you need to do to make your work the way it is supposed to be.

But sincerity plays a role not only in your own work, but in your appreciation of others’ work too. Why not show the enthusiasm that you truly have? Why hold back, in this brief life? I remember a long time ago, when I attended a musical at my high school (as a high school student). I had wanted to be in the musical but, because of various circumstances, could not be. I loved the performance and ran up to the cast party afterward to ask some of the cast members to sign my program. My parents yelled at me afterwards about the autographs; they said that I was embarrassing myself by asking for them. But on that long ride home I stood up for myself and said that there was nothing shameful about showing my appreciation, even asking for a signature. My parents ultimately conceded that that was right. This has stayed in my memory, both because it was somehow considered undignified to ask for autographs, and because I stood up for myself, something I wasn’t generally too good at doing.

I hold to that point. Even those fan-ish actions like asking for autographs have a place and a beauty in life. How sad it would be for performers to get no response at all, just because the audience was trying to be cool! People have to be willing to risk the embarrassment slightly. No one has to be a groveling or bothersome fan. That’s not what it’s about. But if I look back on my life so far, one thing I do not regret is letting people know that I love their work. Because those are some of the things that should be said when the words are sincere.

The word “sincere,” by the way, may come from the Proto-Indo-European *sm-ke-ro-, from *sem- “one” (see same) + root of crescere “to grow” (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary). According to the same dictionary, it dates back to the 1530s, with the sense of “pure, unmixed.” Some might argue that nothing is pure, nothing unmixed, but I don’t think that’s true; or, rather, there’s a purity even in our mixed-up selves and ways.

I deleted but later restored this piece to its original place and date.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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