Writing in Bed

The story is that Edith Wharton wrote in bed.

Whenever she would finish handwriting a page, she would drop it on the floor. Later, her secretary would gather up the sheets of story and type them.

One must have a method.

Despite the — dare I say it? — privilege inherent in the image of the heiress-author abed with her papers and laying abed with her papers and having an employee follow behind her, it must be acknowledged that Wharton found a system that worked for her. She wrote over twenty novels, countless (well, I’m not counting them) short stories, poems, and essays. If she did it from the comfort of a luxurious bed, can I really fault her for that?

Nope. Not at all. Not even a little.

A lot of writers — present company included — pay very close attention to successful writers’ processes:

Stephen King‘s 2,000-words-per-day is practically gospel now because so many writers quote On Writing.

Hemingway wrote standing up and left his writing at the most interesting part so he’d be excited to get back to it the next day. (Plus that whole “write drunk, edit sober” thing.)

Jane Austen wrote at a small desk in the sitting room and hid her pages of writing if company came over.

Anthony Trollope apparently wrote for two hours in the morning, every morning, before work.

These processes, or schedules, or rituals, or whatever-you-want-to-call them, are all valid. Obviously. Every one listed above is a demonstrably successful writer. But my point is even simpler than that.

They did whatever worked for them.

And that’s the trick. Do what works for you.

Soooooo simple.

Soooooo not simple.

In some ways, knowledge of other writers’ routines is very useful. You understand there is no one way to do this writing thing. Any time of day is valid. Any writing utensil — quill, ink, computer, typewriter — is available. The world is your oyster!

But if you choose something, and you’re not flexible, you can fuck yourself.

For example: You determine you’ll write at X amount of words at X time with X implement. You Will Be Disciplined. You Will Have Routine.

Then you oversleep one day and BAM — the bullshit fairy visits you. You Have Failed to stick to the Routine. Thus you are a Shitty Writer. Stephen King writes this way! Ernest Hemingway writes this way! Therefore, if YOU cannot write this way, then you must colossally suck.

It’s just not true.

The bad news is you didn’t get much writing done.

The good news is you figure out that you need to try something different.

I, for example, am no morning lark. My creative engine starts revving around 4:00p.m. and can go pretty steady until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I’ve tried to get up early to write. It resulted in shitty, grouchy days and my children wondering why I’m growling at them. I leave the mornings to the birds.

Don’t feel like one person’s way of doing things is the only way. And don’t let anyone prescribe anything to you, unless they’re a doctor and you need medication. Just figure out your way of getting words on the page.

But, if a writer has discussed their process and something in it resonates with you — steal it, take it for a drive, see if it works for you too.

For example, I’ve determined that I should spend at least 10 minutes a day writing…and I’ve taken to bringing my notebook with me to bed, much like Wharton. Maybe I write before bed, or right after I wake up. But words are getting down, so that’s a good thing for me.

Just wish I had a secretary to type it all up for me….

What are some “process” things you’ve stolen from other writers? Have you ever experimented with something that didn’t work? What was that experience like?

A Castle of One’s Own

Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, despite having friends in common and despite both being talented and respected female writers working at the turn of the 20th century, apparently did not admire each other’s work. Woolf’s new-fangled modern stylings (stream-of-conscious, no distinct plot-line) didn’t resonate with Wharton. And Wharton’s style (structured storylines) was representative of writing which Woolf actively sought to reconfigure.

But, whether Wharton wanted to admit it or not, Woolf — in her 1929 extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” — pointed out two necessary things for all writers (two necessary things that women writers have lacked throughout history): money and a room of one’s own.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones — the daughter of the “keeping up with the Joneses” Joneses. (Apparently.) She was the child of Kardashian-level wealth.

This doesn’t mean that Wharton was without the struggles that confront many a writer — struggles I’ll explore a little later.

But she had that other thing we rarely talk about when it comes to writing — and the arts in general.

Money.

This November article from Vox explores the very effect cold, hard cash has on the creation of art. In it, writer and teacher E.J. Roller explains how her father sold his second company and how, from the millions he received, he gifted her with $28,000/year — and $28K, while practically a fortune to someone like me, is pennies compared to what Wharton inherited. (Please do yourself a favor and read this insightful article.)

Look, Edith Wharton was an amazingly talented writer. The money she lived off of later in life was almost entirely from her phenomenally successful writing career. I don’t want to diminish her accomplishments. But it creates an unrealistic portrait if I were to say that “she pulled herself up by her bootstraps.”

Wharton was born into a position where she would never have to go hungry, she would never have to worry about whether she could buy new clothes, she would never have to make the choice between the utility bill and gas in the car. Even today, it’s hard to comprehend the level of wealth she was born into.

She had more than a room of her own.

She had a castle of her own.

Time to be straight: We can’t all be so lucky. Most of us artists never will be. A lot of us are in debt. We have to work full time jobs and dedicate our tiny stores of free time to the surviving-of-life and, hopefully, our art. We count ourselves blessed if we have a corner of the kitchen counter to call our own, let alone an entire room.

I don’t know about you, but I read stories like Stephen King’s and J.K. Rowling’s like the wannabe Cinderella I am. I think they did it, so I can too! But, the reality is, even though they worked their butts off (typing in the corner of a trailer or government-funded flat), a lot of us work our butts off and will never have their careers or their castles.

But, since I’m kinda dumb and insist on doing this writing thing anyway…there are some things I’m trying to do to help myself.

  1. Work. The 9-5. The grind. I must accept that this is something I have to do. (This is harder for me than you would think. I hate work that I don’t put on myself.) One must eat. One must have clothing. And (apparently) children need those things too. So I must make adjustments for the 40 hours to be dedicated to executing someone else’s dream. I’ve determined that, on my worst days, I have enough energy to dedicate at least 10 minutes to writing. Sometimes the push forward is just a nudge. But forward progress is forward progress.
  2. Pay off debts. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic (a book I highly recommend for all your artsy folks out there) “debt is the abbatoir of art.” Abbatoir means slaughterhouse. I don’t want to be slaughtered. Paying off debt, like writing whatever I want, is a slower process than I would like. But I don’t use credit cards anymore. I’m paying more than the minimum on my car payment. Nudging forward. In 2018, I finished paying off my second student loan. Only two more to go. Ugh.
  3. Find a space. I kicked my children out of a so-called “playroom” that they’d both outgrown and NEVER used anyway. Quite frankly, I’m very, very lucky in the space I have. I’m surrounded by books. I have two desks that I refurbished. I have a printer that works about half of the time. To get this room, I had to remember that I’m allowed to have a space to follow my dreams. Hie thee to a corner of your trailer, your government-funded flat, or your favorite computer at your local library.

There is a space for you. It might not be a castle, but it is yours. Claim it.

What have you done to make space for your writing? How often do you worry about cashflow and does it impact what you’re doing and how you do it? I’m interested in any tips and tricks that I can steal.

Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

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:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

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:

 

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

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!

The Ghost in the Machine

Mary Shelley On Ghosts Quote

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:

Mary Shelley On Ghosts Quote 2

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.

 

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!)

CONFLICT!!

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. 

 

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:

vaguebooking.png

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.