Write what you want to write instead of what you think you’re supposed to write.
That’s what I’m hoping to do, as I discussed in my last column here at ERWA, but I know there’s no quick and easy way to make the big switch. It takes time to discard old habits, to trust inner voices, to take risks. As part of this process, I’ve been thinking back to the messages I’ve gotten over the years about “good” writing from teachers, how-to books, famous writers, literary critics. Or in other words, the specifics of my supposed-to’s.
Back when I first started writing seriously, about sixteen years ago now, I was talking with a friend who had signed up for a pricey writing workshop with the former editor of a national magazine that published fiction. She mentioned that this teacher’s highest praise for a student’s story was “this is writing that will last.” And indeed, he urged all of his students to aim to write “something that will last.”
At the time, I took this as simple wisdom from an expert. After all, wasn’t that the dream of every writer—to be so amazingly talented that we attain immortality like Shakespeare? That guy lived four hundred years ago and everyone still knows his name! Of course, as I became more familiar with what the writer’s life really involves in our commercial age, I realized that “lasting” means your book is reprinted many times or that it’s taught in high school or college classrooms year after year. Unfortunately, authors who achieve either of these goals are rare, and in the latter case, most are already dead. Gradually my goals became more modest. I was satisfied—in the best way--if someone told me that my story lingered for a day or so after s/he read it. Perhaps I would never be immortal, but whenever a reader confessed that s/he read a particular story of mine many times for erotic inspiration, I knew I’d made a true connection, the highest praise an erotica writer can hope to hear.
Yet I still believed that there were “important new voices” up there in Literary Land, penning gorgeous and unforgettable literary prose that would earn them a throne next to The Bard for all eternity. I didn’t really question this (I’m now somewhat embarrassed to admit) until very recently when I happened to read a book by Leslie Fiedler, a renegade English professor who both entertained and scandalized academia in the latter half of the twentieth century by embracing popular literature as worthy of analysis. (He is also credited with coining the term “postmodernism” among other things). I originally sought out his book What Was Literature? for an essay on Rhett Butler as a symbolic Black Stranger in Gone With the Wind, but I ended up reading the whole book with great enjoyment.
I was hooked at Fiedler’s opening redefinition of the classic distinction between literary (high) and popular (low) fiction. He wrote that literary fiction could in fact be seen as “minority” literature, read by few and penned by tormented, introverted male artistes to stimulate the intellect, whereas popular literature was “majority” literature, mainly scribbled by female hacks to drug us with cheap sensationalism. More amusing was his description of popular fiction as “optional,” whereas, for most readers, literary fiction was “compulsory,” as in school assignments that needed professional explication to be understood fully.
But what really struck a chord with me was Fiedler’s insistence that “writing that lasts” is not about the quality of the prose. It is what he calls the mythopoeic power of the story, with characters that live on in our minds long after the beautiful metaphors (if any) are forgotten. This got me thinking about which stories have indeed lasted over time, stories our culture returns to again and again in modern riffs and movie remakes. My Anglo-centric list would include the Bible, some of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth), Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, Huckleberry Finn, Dracula, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind. Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey certainly define contemporary popular tastes, but I’d need to reconsider their lasting impact in about 30 years. By this measure, all the towering literary figures of my youth—Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike, Roth—are still reasonably famous as names, but rarely read except in class or by a small minority of literati with historical inclinations.
I know my particular list is open to argument—maybe you’d delete Macbeth and Huck Finn and add King Lear and To Kill a Mockingbird--but the specific examples are less important than the redefinition of “writing that lasts.” Because I now see it’s not about the world’s admiration for a writer’s brilliant prose, fresh metaphors, and carefully structured chapter breaks—although many of these works are beautifully written and a pleasure to read because of it. The immortality belongs to the story for its power to connect deeply with readers across cultures and time.
As a writer myself, I was also very interested to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she had a vision during a church service of an aged black slave being beaten to death by a cruel master. The image rose up in her mind, demanding a novel to be written around it. I also remembered that Charles Dickens was planning to write a political pamphlet about poverty and injustice in the fall of 1843. However, inspired by the rousing response to a speech he gave to a workingman’s club in Manchester, he walked the dark streets of the city, possessed by images of a redeemed miser. In a few short weeks of feverish work, he wrote one of the most retold stories ever, A Christmas Carol.
So what does this mean for a writer who seeks to create works that linger if not last forever? For me it means taking one more step away from writing as ego gratification, as proof of my worthiness or cleverness--because really, let’s face it, no one cares if I can turn a phrase or not. It also means taking one step closer to stories that move me, that draw me in to their magic, that beg to be told through me.
Which stories beg to be told through you?
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor