White Paper – Wilt Thou Be My Confident?: Grief and Creation

On July 8, 1822, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died in a boating accident.

Months later, Mary Shelley wrote the following in her journal:

Mary Shelley Journal of Sorrow Quote

If you ever get the chance to read the whole entry, it will break your heart. (If you’re not a cold-hearted bastard, that is.) She continues to explain how the only comfort she has is in engaging her intellect – because it’s the only way she can distract herself. And, if you direct your attention to the final question:

“White paper – wilt thou be my confident?”

I don’t know how you read that, but I read that sentence as a plea. Shelley seems to be looking for something to kill the unbearable loneliness that comes with grief…and, in fact, that sense of being alone is probably the real, defining pain of grief.  So she’s asking this blank sheet of paper for help filling that hole.

But, as many of us know, holes are hard to fill.

We don’t often talk about how grief affects the creative process. I think, often – and like Mary Shelley – we look to our creative endeavors to help heal ourselves.

What happens when we just can’t?

Look, lots of things can cause grief and the loneliness that comes with it. Death – of a family member, a lover, a friend, a pet.  Divorce or breakups. Distance – from a move or an estrangement. Even the loss of a job means that you no longer see people you were used to seeing every day. Some of these things are a surprise. Sometimes you have a chance to “prepare” – whatever that means, right?

But, no matter the how or when…these things hurt.

Sometimes hurting means you just can’t pick up that pen, or touch that keyboard, or that paintbrush, or that camera, or whatever it is you use to create. You just cannot get your brain in the right space. All you can think about is how he would brush your hair out of your eyes. Or how she curled up right up against your ribcage. Or the way he cracked jokes at inappropriate times. Or how she twirled her hair when she was nervous.

Or maybe it’s been longer – and that one song came on the radio today and, dammit, you are FEELING THINGS.

As much as we like to think that our creativity can see us through anything, and despite the fact that often we’re thinking – “I’ll be able to use this in a story” …

use all the pain

… it’s like Stephen King said in his great book On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art, it’s the other way around.” And – not to be too prosaic – but sometimes life sucks.

So, if you’re like any other writer I’ve ever met, you’re probably pretty hard on yourself if you’re not in writing mode. And, when you’re grieving it can feel doubly hard…like your life has gone completely haywire. Like you can’t do anything that you used to do. Then you think “How can this be happening? I’m losing everything. First [insert loss] and now my writing.”

First: your life might indeed be haywire for a little while. I am here to tell you that, while it is incredibly hard – maybe the hardest thing you’ve ever gone or will ever go through – it will not be this hard forever.

Second: It is okay to hurt. People always try to make you feel better, and that’s incredibly sweet of them. Have some mercy on them and their efforts. But you have to let that loneliness, that pain, that anger, that grief do its thing. You have to let yourself miss your friend. And maybe that means you don’t write for a while.

I think Mary Shelley does some smart grieving things. (Does that seem rude? It’s not meant to be. I admire it.) For example, the entry quoted above was written in October, not July when Shelley died. Her life went haywire and she had to scramble and deal with that. Including getting some harsh backlash from her in-laws and her family, questions about where she could live, and how was she supposed pay for anything? Chaos.

And she allowed herself to hurt. It’s right there in the words. She is woman who is hurting and lonely and looking for somewhere to put all that emotion.  She chooses to put it in her journal…a journal she once shared with her husband.

Dream Sequence

Of all the books in all the world that have been inspired by dreams, Frankenstein remains the most famous. (Though Twilight did what it could to oust that.)

In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley goes into detail about the inspiration behind the novel: her nightmare. 

“When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possess and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellowy, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense that I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps beyond.”

This vivid image — the one Shelley was so eager to erase by looking around her bedroom — became the “powerful engine” driving her story. Everyone who has been exposed to the story of Frankenstein — whether through children’s cartoons (thank you, Scooby-Doo), any of the film versions or — please Heaven — the novel itself — can attest to the visceral nature of Shelley’s initial dream. 

And I think the vivid, visceral nature of dreams is what makes them so enticing to write about and so tricky.

Generally, lucid dreams are emotionally charged too — so not only do you have an image that’s striking (like a stitched-together corpse) but that image is tied to a strong emotion. Like terror, in Shelley’s case. 

The Nightmare

Writers should be highly encouraged to follow their dreams…literally. As a writer, you should see where those sharp imaged and super-emotional emotions take you. 

But — and this is the tricky part which makes Mary Shelley a legend among hundreds of novelists for hundreds of years — the emotion/image combo should somehow feed the engine of narrative. Mary Shelley didn’t only write the scene where Frankenstein’s monster is created. All in all, that would not make a legendary story, as terrifying and visceral as it is. 

Instead, Shelley creates Frankenstein as a man with deep ambitions that drive him to create this creature. So her main character’s want — his objective — is tied to the dream image. 

Then she takes it a step further. She gives the other character in her dream wants — objectives — too. Objectives which are diametrically opposed to her main character. So the scene of student-doing-something-he-shouldn’t turns into a meeting of protagonist and antagonist. (Which is which? Who knows? Another stroke of genius!)


With some divine comparisons thrown in on both sides:

Frankenstein: “I had gazed on him while unfinished, he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became such a thing as even Dante could not have conceived.”

…And Frankenstein’s monster: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” 

Everything in the story spins out from that central image of Shelley’s nightmare — the disgust, the envy.

And that’s the important thing to take away: don’t write only your dream. Because then you’re just writing images and emotions. Use those images and emotions to create conflict and drive the story. 


One True Sentence: Writing Wednesday

In the spirit of last week’s Write Expecting to be Read: Mary Shelley’s Journals — the prompt for today is to riff on “write what you mean, mean what you write.” And we’re going to do that by following the advice of another author: Ernest Hemingway.

No, we’re not writing drunk and editing sober.

But we are going to “write one true sentence” — which was Hemingway’s way of getting started on a piece when he wasn’t sure what else to do. Just write one true sentence. Whatever that means to you. Just make sure you mean it. You can put it on your own blog and link back in the comments if it leads to something longer, or just put it in the comments if you’re sticking to a sentence.

The Weight of an Infinite Sky: Introducing “Little Reviews”

For my Goodreads reading challenge this year, I decided that I would read 50 books. And, rather than write a traditional review — which I do all the time for Criminal Element — I thought I would create art from art.

You see, after a while it’s hard to critique other people’s work. They’ve spent a lot of time on their piece.

And I like to think that art leads to art.

So I just finished Carrie LaSeur’s The Weight of an Infinite Sky, which will be released on Tuesday. I wrote this in response to a line in the novel: “It only reflected him in unflattering angles.”

Weight of an Infinite Sky Review

Write Expecting to be Read: Mary Shelley’s Journals

When I was younger – maybe eleven or twelve – my mother told me never to write down anything I didn’t want someone else to read. If I kept a diary or a journal, I needed to make sure I meant what I said. And I should never write down anything I would not say to someone’s face.

She told me this after I wrote something particularly hurtful about my grandmother – who I was quite angry with at the time. So, I got that advice perhaps a little late…but the lesson stuck.

Write What You Mean Motherfucker

As I was reading through Mary Shelley’s journals, this advice – write like someone will read it – kept repeating in my mind. Partly because I was reading someone else’s private thoughts two hundred years after she’d written them…and partly because I realized she was writing like someone would read these journals.

My first clue (I’m a little slow sometimes) was that it’s not Mary who starts the journal. Her husband Percy does. At first I was distracted by this fact: who the hell shares a journal? I get territorial about my spot on the couch. Letting someone else share pages, even a husband, seems like a weird mind-meld I want no part of.

Most of Mary’s journal remains her own. And, my guess is, a lot of it is to communicate with her husband – to tell him how her days went, when her heart broke, or when she was happy or angry.

For example, Mary was left behind quite often because she was pregnant and unmarried. (Pregnant, unmarried women weren’t really welcome in public places.) Her condition didn’t stop Percy and Claire (Mary’s stepsister) from going out. To which Mary left repeated entries along the lines of: “P and C walk” and then, after this entry occurs several times – “P and C walk as usual.”

If it was a scold, it seems to have worked for a little bit. Those entries slow down.

At no point does Mary ever call Claire a name or outright mention specific jealousies…but anyone who is familiar with ‘vaguebooking’ on Facebook will recognize the communication style. And her entries seem (to me) to have the same motivations as vaguebooking. Namely saying:


So she was always aware of her audience.

Years later, knowing that her writing would be read, Mary tore out and burned a large amount of journal pages and letters to preserve reputations…so maybe Mary didn’t do quite as well at following my mother’s advice as she should have.

I think the lesson from all this is to write with a certain level of honesty in your writings. Facebook. Letters. Blog posts. Texts. Journals. At the end of the day you have to answer for what you put into the world, so make sure you’re willing to back your words up – doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, personal or public. Mary knew that her journals and letters would color opinions of her work and her husband’s work. (And, by extension, a lot their literary circle.)

Write what you mean. Mean what you write.

Sleeping With Your Father

Throughout January and February, I’m going to be utilizing Mary Shelley as my writing mentor. You may have heard of her.

Quick Bio:

Mary Shelley is most famous as the creator of Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus — a novel which has undergone endless printings and, since the invention of the movie, several films. You probably know the story. A young, ambitious student figures out the secret of giving life and cobbles together a “man” of corpse parts, which he brings to life. When the student rejects his creation, the “monster” pursues his creator. What follows is a cat-and-mouse series of events that explores who is truly the monster and who is the man.

It’s beautiful.

You should read it.

Mary Godwin Shelley herself was the child of William Godwin, a big-name philosopher of the day, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the somewhat-infamous author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is still used as a text in many women’s studies courses and well worth the time of reading it.

Mary Shelley Family Tree
Mix Big-Name Philosopher William Godwin with Somewhat-Infamous Author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft and you get Badass Author Mary Shelley

Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, leaving infant Mary to be raised by her father, who was distant. Eventually he remarried and Mary and her half-sister Fanny (the child of Wollstonecraft’s previous love affair) were raised with step-siblings Jane (later Claire) and Charles Clairmont.

Later, young Mary eloped with the already-married up-and-coming poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They lived “in sin” for a few years until Shelley’s first wife died by suicide, then they married officially. They moved around England and Europe, always struggling financially, until Shelley’s untimely death in a boating accident.

Mary Shelley, while most famous for Frankenstein actually wrote quite a bit, not stopping until her death in 1851.

Pulling From Your Life

Even from that very brief, very glossed over biography, you can tell Mary Shelley lived a very notable life. And critics have noted repeatedly, ad nauseum, that there are, ahem, BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCES in her work.

They point to the death of her children influencing the themes of life-and-death-and-resurrection in Frankenstein. And it’s easy to agree with critics’ assessment when she writes in her journal: “Dreamt my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.”

In general, it is not rocket-science to find links between an author’s work and the author’s life. After all, we write about things that affect us, that inspire us, that bother us, that fascinate us…and all of those things come from living a life. There’s really no escaping that. If you’re going to write something, odds are good that there’s some touch of real life that’ll sneak in.

As a writer, you should embrace that. Use your life.

And don’t worry if they accuse you of sleeping with your father.



Yeah, Mary Shelley was such a wild child, such a scandalous creature during her lifetime, that when she wrote the novella Mathilda — a very quick read involving a father’s romantic love interest in his female child —  soon after Frankenstein, it raised some eyebrows.


Mathilda was published in 1820. It’s narrated by Mathilda, a young woman who has suffered quite a bit. For a while, her father ignored her existence because he was devastated by the fact that Mathilda’s mother died in childbirth. (BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCE!?) And then, upon Mathilda’s return home after a long time away, she reminds her father so much of her mother that he can’t help but love her — romantically.

Mathilda tells us that this is the reason her father drowned himself. (While Godwin died of natural causes, Fanny — Mary Shelley’s half-sister — and Harriet — Percy Shelley’s first wife — both died by suicide…BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCES?! WHAT?!)

With a lot of the plot points tying to pieces of Mary Shelley’s real-life experiences, more than one critic has posited that, perhaps, the main story line has some element of truth too.

Ignore All the Critics

Make Shit Up

Look, Mary Shelley had already written one of the most wildly creative novels ever written by the time she penned Mathilda. She was also no stranger to Romantic literature…of which incest was a key and consistent player. Incest was not a foreign concept to her, artistically speaking.

Now, maybe her daddy issues were more than just regular daddy issues — that’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But, however it played out, she did not care what the critics said. (Much. We could argue about the way her name was attached to said works….)

And neither should you.

As an author, you need to be able to tell stories that are beyond your personal life experiences…and you need to be able to tell those stories without worrying about whether or not your personal life will be dissected.

Shelley wrote about grave digging, dead children, weird science, incest, suicide, and the last men on earth. And that’s not just in Frankenstein. The pieces she wrote later were just as dark as her debut.

You must have Mary-Shelley-Level Don’t-Give-A-Shit. Write what you wanna write, write it convincingly, and let the work stand on its own.

Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac’s Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me): “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road — the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac’s character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Sal, I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I’ll not only pay you five, I’ll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.’
      ‘Agreed!’ I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her.”

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Jack I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I’ll not only pay you five I’ll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.’ ‘Agreed!’ I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri’s promise. I averted my eyes.

You’ll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the “I was true to Henri’s promise” — where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn’t sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I’m going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word “cunt.” (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

‘Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase “in her” to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It’s straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that’s also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today’s terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman — so we understand something else basic about this dude’s character — as well as all the things that ‘in her’ accomplished: offensive and horny.

So…the more vulgar word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character’s wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the ‘in her’ seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. And interestingly, according to a very unscientific Goodreads poll – more readers seem to have given more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version was edited too cleanly? I think: yeah.