Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Write What You Know

Gentlemen, don't be scared away. Allow me to begin by saying that Jane Austen is an excellent novelist, and it's no accident that her works have been continuously in print for the last several centuries and have been repeatedly adapted for the screen. What's so special about them, anyway? To the casual, and, dare I say it, lazy observer, her books are one boring parlor scene and stuffy romance encounter after another. Why on earth should we care? And yes, as I have heard more than one man exclaim, why the hell do they have to get measured up against Mr. Darcy? (As long as we're on the subject, Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey is my favorite; he's got all the best bits of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley combined.)

Jane Austen lived a quiet life, traveled little, never married, and died at a fairly young age. She was one of many siblings, the daughter of a clergyman, lived within modest means, and was eventually supported by one of her many brothers. She was highly intelligent, artistically and intellectually gifted, subtly and comically sarcastic and satirical, and viewed the world of social niceties that was her bread and butter with a critic's eye. Encouraged in her education and literary efforts by her family, and most especially her father, she was a woman in many ways ahead of her time in sense and scholarship. And in her writing, she was determined, among other things, that she would only write what she knew. She wanted to write the world as she saw it, examine and present characters that were true to the life she knew and the society she encountered. As a single woman of the middle class, parlor room encounters were her stomping ground and observatory. They were her world. And so she wrote about them. You'll notice that in not one of her novels are the main characters a married or older couple; as neither she nor her sister Cassandra, with whom she was the closest of friends, ever married, it wasn't a life she knew personally, and so she only wrote about it from the outside. (N.B. Cassandra, Jane's first and most trusted editor, drew this portrait. It's the only known image we have of her.)

So. We need to write what we know. This is not to say that the best of any writing is some sort of autobiography, but that the world we know, the experiences we have had, have to inform the bulk of the meat of what we write. Embellish as you will, but, to quote a favorite old professor, fiction is not opposed to reality. It has to be grounded in truth, or it really isn't any good at all. And this is why Jane Austen is still awesome. The embellishments of her stories -- the bonnets, top hats, parasols, dances and carriages -- are a happy bonus to those of us who enjoy such details, but the reason her stories work is that they tell true things about the way that people relate to each other and discover themselves. And she learned those true things by observing, with her educated and well-informed mind, the people that filled her day-to-day life. That's what she wrote about.

I had a 12 hour layover in London and made a mad dash to Austen's
home at Chawton in Hampshire. That little table is her writing desk.
Other great notables who have even more clearly incorporated their personal experiences: James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise (yes, I'll keep bringing him up) and, perhaps most shockingly and delightfully, Dante in his Divine Comedy. Why not send all your mortal enemies to various circles of hell? Work it all in. It's for the sake of truth, after all.

So, thinking about all of this, I've been struggling with how to reconcile it with the fact that art is not about self-expression. Yes. We have to write about what we know, make art based on what we have seen and understood. Like Professor Bhaer tells Jo in Little Women, critiquing her sensational but not very deep adventure stories that had just been printed, "You must write from life, from the depths of your soul!" And we all know what Louisa May Alcott's best book is.

How do we write about the life that we have led without making it about us? And isn't that a self-centered way to go about things anyway? Luckily, I have a wise friend who gave the best answer I can imagine to my frustrated ponderings, and has since given me leave to share it with all of you. First, part of my inquiry to him:
I've been thinking a lot about novels in the last several days, and, believe it or not, thinking about the possibility of maybe writing one myself. Before we get that far, though, I have to tell you what all I've been ruminating on. Here's the thing. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Just so we're clear, I'm not a huge fan of Dickens. I think he needed some serious hardcore editors, for one thing. That being said, Harold Bloom says that the three best writers ever (I'm assuming he means AD) are Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dickens. That being said, you have to understand that I admire Dickens in the same way that I do Jane Austen; they wrote about real things happening in their own day and age. They found the extraordinary in the ordinary, found a way to talk about everyday life in a lasting and universal way, connecting the humdrum doings of mankind to the sense of the universal that is a necessary proponent of every great work of art. You were asking me a while back what direction I think writing needs to go in, what new form or great work of modernity we (as in, the great writers of our day and age, not we literally, you understand) writers can give to define this period. I think we need to return to Austen or Dickens. All great art, like clothing, mundane as it might seem, repeats itself to some degree, for all great art must contain the common elements of truth, universality and entrancing or at least fascinating beauty. Those three elements are such that they lend themselves to some degree of repetition. So, what we need is someone who can write a novel about our day and age, about our people, our lives and our day to day nothings and goings and happenstances in such a way that our humdrum boring lives are rightly revealed as remarkable and terrifyingly beautifully revealing of the truths of the way that men communicate with each other and become the best forms of themselves.
You'll have to forgive me. But these thoughts have been spinning, and I needed to share them. I might have been wrong in what I believe I said to you earlier about wanting to avoid writing something or anything that was somewhat autobiographical. That's what we know, right, and so are the most qualified to write about, correct? Perhaps the lack of distance makes us biased and incorrect in our judgement of the facts, but I'm wavering on that position. I think perhaps, solipsistic as it might seem, our own lives, or some element of them, are the only thing about which we can put pen to paper.

His response:
As a wise man commented after your Fitzgerald article, it's profoundly true that one's early work should be driven by personal passion, but the groundwork of craftsmanship and discipline should already be laid by the time that passion strikes, and that groundwork is laid (as with anything) by study and imitation and good old-fashioned practice. So first one writes what other people know, just to get the hang of writing, and then one writes about one's own experience (howsobeit veiled in fiction) once the experiences become powerful enough to demand expression in one's writing, and THEN, once one has "manifested" that passion, one learns to control it and use it in conjunction with one's discipline and reason, at which time -- one can write anything at all. I have no doubt Austen could have written swashbuckling adventure novels quite well if she'd been of a mind to, but that wasn't what she wanted to write about. So in short, it's definitely wise to begin (at least) by writing about the stuff we know directly, and then see where it goes from there. I don't think you need to worry about being solipsistic; we're designed to have unique perspectives on the universe, and to try and communicate them to each other. The trap is the notion that each person represents his own universe and that art is the showcasing of one person's inner reality, whereas obviously the point of art is to discuss the eternal reality in which we all partake -- but to do it in such a way that maybe you can point out some things that the rest of us never noticed before. Personally, I think the real reason a given writer chooses a given topic is simply that it's something he or she wants to read about, and no one else has done it quite  right. That's what Lewis and Tolkien always used to say, and it's certainly been the case in my own writing: "Wouldn't this be a cool story? I can't believe nobody's written this yet, I guess it's up to me."
The part of his response that sticks with me most profoundly is the individual revelation of the truths of the universe that is given to each person. It is undeniable that no two persons are the same. Each person sees the great truths of our world through his own eyes, his eyes and method of understanding that are his unique gift and lens. To him whom much is given, much shall be expected. We are, in a sense, called to communicate our perspective of universal truth with as many people as possible. It is such a grace, such a blessing, that we all have our own view and snippet peak of the incomprehensible fullness of reality. We communicate that individual revelation, not for the sake of highlighting our individuality (it's not about me), but rather to call attention to that brilliant point of truth that has been revealed to no one else as we have seen it.

I've started writing a semi-autobiographical something. We'll see what happens.


  1. Good luck, Ellen! There is much food for thought in this little post, and I have to add that I just became that much more glad I'm getting to know you. ;-)

  2. Yeah...That's it. I'm calling in a favor to get you some much needed dick and relaxation.


    The Individual who DESPISES censorship

    1. I deleted our last exchange (my comments included) because it didn't seem like we were getting anywhere. If you would, however, like to have an intelligent conversation about this, I'd be more than happy to discuss it over email. Just let me know.

      And, while you're at it, look up the etymology of the word "obscene" and do me a favor by reading this post: as it might give you some idea of why I prefer to keep things G-rated in a public forum. Finally, if you have opinions, as it seems you do, be a man and own up to them. Stop writing in anonymously.