In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”
In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:
And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.
But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.
Questions about deadlines:
Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?
If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.
You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.
So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!
Mary Shelley’s “On Ghosts” is an interesting little article/essay. It’s more of a meditation on: With all the scientific advancements, with all the mysteries being explained, do we truly not believe in ghosts anymore? She begins by pointing out that myths and legends are just that: myths and legends, stories once told by unenlightened cavemen. Mankind has moved beyond such superstitious storytelling.
Or has it?
Shelley argues that when the sun’s up and all is bright, illuminated, and logical, no one would really claim that ghosts exist. Or claim that the thought of ghosts might be terrifying. Then she says, “But let it be twelve at night in a lone house…”
And, all of a sudden, these logical people are believers.
Shelley goes on to explain that there are things we don’t know with our minds but we sense with our hearts:
To me, this place “beyond the soul’s ken,” that vacuum where our hopes and fears rush in to fill the space, is where good stories come from. It’s the place that can’t be touched by the harsh light of reality. It’s the place where ghosts live.
We could talk for days about grammatical matters, syntactical structures, character or plot arcs. There are entire books about Outlining: The Pros and Cons! To adjective or not to adjective? This is the science of writing. These are the skills we are taught in elementary school. These are the things that constitute a writer’s “harsh light of day.” This is the science. Structural concerns are a concern and you must know them. A writer needs them to tell stories.
But structural concerns are not the story.
I wish I had a great definition of a good story. But it’s more something you have to feel. And you know it when you feel it.
Think of it like this.
You’re standing on a beach. Ahead of you is the ocean.
Now. There are facts that you understand about the ocean. You can give its size in miles/kilometers. You can tell me how many fathoms deep it is. You can tell me the names of men who have sailed its surface. You can explain to me how the waves are created and the ways weather plays with surges and currents.
But, anyone who has stood on the shore and looked out over the vast expanse can tell you there’s something else there. You can’t explain why you feel so small. As if you cannot be separated from the insignificant grains of sand beneath you. But how you know, if you spread your arms, you’re as large as the horizon. That feeling, that sensation, is how a good story is.
What’s funny is that I started this post thinking I could try to explain something which Mary Shelley tries to capture too…but at the end of the day both of us fall woefully short. (“…such is the list of our ignorance.”) Her essay is lovely, but she offers only anecdotal — story — evidence of ghosts at the end. There is no proof of anything except her own feelings, her belief that “influences do exist to watch and guard us, though they be impalpable to coarser faculties.”
And I am no Mary Shelley. At the end of the day, I guess it’s about building the machine — using structural pieces of a story — and then, in the gaps that are inevitably created there, trying to breathe “our hopes and fears, in gentle gales and terrific whirlwinds” to fill the space.
On July 8, 1822, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died in a boating accident.
Months later, Mary Shelley wrote the following in her journal:
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” …
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Throughout January and February, I’m going to be utilizing Mary Shelley as my writing mentor. You may have heard of her.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.