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!

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.