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.

Kerouac’s Genius/Interpreter Theory vs. Jenny’s Genius/Genius Theory

We’re going to finish up our exploration of Kerouac with a couple of differing opinions on the form “genius” takes.

Let’s examine the word ‘genius.’ It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive ‘talent.’ It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare.” ~ Jack Kerouac, “Are Writers Made or Born?”

If you get a chance, you should really read the whole text of “Are Writers Made or Born?” – Kerouac covers a lot of ground in a short space of essay. In it, he talks about the difference between a genius and an interpreter. His argument is that a genius is someone who does something that has never been done before: like Walt Whitman with poetic lines or James Joyce with the stream-of-conciousness thing.

He goes to explain the idea of an interpreter: “I always laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about ‘talent’ and ‘genius.’ Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a ‘genius,’ but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter – in other words, a ‘Talent.’

So, in other words, there are genius writers and there are interpretive writers. You can be talented, but still not be a genius.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this assessment. I’m more inclined to think that there are two types of genius.

The first type is identical to Kerouac’s definition of genius – the guys and gals who put out something that hasn’t been seen before. You know their names: James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and even Gertrude Stein’s weird repetition, weird repetition.

However, I have to disagree with his assessment of interpreters not being geniuses in their own right.

In his essay he brings up Thomas Hardy – a genius writer, right? Kerouac thinks so, and I think so, but Kerouac says that Hardy was an originator…and there I have to disagree. I say Thomas Hardy was a kick-ass interpreter.

He wrote long, sprawling, Victorian epics whose subject matter stretched the boundaries of what was ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’. But he didn’t create the three-volume form that was so popular during the Victorian period. Nor did he develop the serialized epics that were equally as popular…and in which he participated. Nor did he create the idea of writing epic tales of relationships, industrialization, or interfamily conflicts. He’s a genius the same way George Eliot and Charles Dickens are geniuses: working with subject matter, and working within a structure that’s already been developed, and telling the world as they see it, building on the authors that have come before. That’s interpreting something, not creating it.

Now, Kerouac defends Hardy as a genius because, no matter what, Hardy would always write like Hardy – and I see and appreciate that argument. But I’d also argue that a genius interpreter would always sound like him or herself. If we’re going to use some musical examples, yes, Brahms is an originating genius…but he doesn’t sound the same when performed by, say, Yo-Yo Ma. It takes on a new life. You know when Yo-Yo Ma is playing. That skill level, that talent, is a form of genius.