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.”
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.
I’m sure most of you are at work or doing something distracting you from writing. But RIGHT NOW: Write something creative–whether it’s on a piece of receipt you pull from the cash register you’re at, a scratch piece of paper from your printer, or on the very device you’re “cheating” at work with and then share it with the rest of us in the comments.