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.