Monday, March 28, 2005

Write what only you can write

Last night after Travis went to bed, Brian put on the movie, Cross Creek, with Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote and Rip Torn. Has anyone seen it? I bought it at a flea market some months back. Rarely do we buy movies, but I wanted this one. It's based on Rawlings' life. Steenburgen plays author Marjorie Rawlings, who wrote and won the Pulitzer in 1939 for The Yearling. She leaves New York for rural Florida where she's planning to write gothic romances, big at the time. But her editor, Max Perkins (played by Malcolm McDowell), keeps rejecting her novels He tells her he loves her letters about life in rural Florida and maybe that's where her story is, not in the gothics she's been trying to do.

This is how The Yearling comes about, a moving novel about a boy (not a girl, like in the movie) and his pet deer.

I'm trying to remember who said it and it's not coming to me--I've looked through quotes I collect and a favorite quote book--but the quote is about not writing what you can write but what only you can write. What is the story that only you can tell? In Pen on Fire, Barbara Seranella talks about this, how she had written a book about divorce and a book about World War II, both of which she put aside. And then she focused in on what she knew, experiences she'd had, that were unique to her. That's when her Munch Mancini character, a lady auto mechanic, was born and her novels started getting published (Barbara had been an auto mechanic for 20 years).

Rawlings' 1953 New York Times obituary says, "For more than ten years, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings tried hard to become a fiction writer--with complete failure. She made up her mind to give up. "Then I thought, well, just one more," she told a New York Times reporter years later. That short story "sold like a shot, and I have had no trouble since," Mrs. Rawlings said.

Rawlings learned to write what moved her, and writing the stories only she could write gave her the success that had eluded her for so long.

23 comments:

Roentgen said...

Yes - a terrific movie. I don't know whether the moral to your blog is write what you know or have an editor like Maxwell Perkins. In the end, however, I suspect we write about what we know or what we feel no matter how we disguise it and that's the beauty of fiction. As Hemingway said about "knowing", "a heavy price must be paid for its aquiring and the only heritage we have to leave behind."

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Well, of course, doesn't everyone want an editor like Maxwell Perkins? I'm not just saying write what you know, I'm saying write what you know best of all.

Roentgen said...

But if we only write about what we know best of all, isn't that rather limiting?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

I'm talking mostly about novels. If you're going to dedicate a year, two or three or more to writing a novel, why not choose to write what's close to the bone, what you feel strongly about? Usually it's the close-to-the-bone writing that is strongest.

Roentgen said...

yes - but do people really want to read about that. Most people are living close to the bone and probably want relief from it, escaping into romance novels or TV or drugs or chocolate. Perhaps the real job of the writer is to write fluff.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Oh, this is rich. You who reads only the classics. Okay, Roentgen, tell you what...write some fluff, bring it to class, and we'll critique it. (If it's like your other stuff, I'm sure it'll be great, too.)

Roentgen said...

You're probably right as usual, but that's beside the point.

Roentgen said...
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Roentgen said...
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Roentgen said...

After reflecting on my 3 previous comments, the possibility exists that you may not be right afterall.
But I doubt it.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Thing is, whatever you're writing, it should be what you're crazy for, y'know? If you're writing fluff or whatever, as long as that's where your heart and soul is, then you are where you need to be. The gist of what I'm saying is that for Rawlings, she was writing what she saw as commercial--gothic romances. It wasn't what she was passionate about. When she finally let go--thanks to Perkins encouragement--she started writing the stories she was meant to write.

Roentgen said...

So, is it possible that others can be more perceptive about a writer's true passion than the writer himself/herself?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

I'm sure of it--for some of us, anyhoo. For me, this was the case. When I began Pen on Fire, I was in a critique group (Fictionaires) and I'd bring my first pieces and I received such encouragement. At the time, I thought, This writing it too easy; I enjoy it too much. I was under the impression that writing had to be labor-intensive, that if it wasn't hard, it wasn't worth it. They thought it was the best writing of mine they'd heard thus far and I trusted their word--which is the other part of the equation: You have to trust the person(s) who are telling you what you should be doing.

(And by the way, those two comments Roentgen posted were removed because they were duplicates of one of his messages and not because he was a bad, bad boy (he's always a bad boy ; }

Roentgen said...

Well, it seems to me that can lead to "selective believing". How is one to truly know?

(by the way - the deleted comments were not duplicates but really pretty bad!)

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Oy! (As I said, a bad boy.

In the end, we believe what we want, whether it's to our advantage or not.

Roentgen said...

Enough said.

Lorianne said...

This is such an interesting post & subsequent comment thread. It seems that Roentgen is suggesting that writers follow market trends: if romance sells, I must write a romance. I suppose there's some truth to this if you see writing as a "day job," something you crank out to pay the bills.

I think Barbara, though, is suggesting that if you want to write something Earth Moving--something that is a lasting classic, not just another disposable pulp novel--you need to write something unique. And the way to be unique is be yourself.

I always chuckle when I hear writers trying to figure what genre/persona they should assume in order to be popular/get published. Great books *make* trends; they don't *follow* them.

Barbara, I'm partway through reading your book: it was recommended to me by Gary from inkmusings. Although my Busy Woman status is making me read the book very, very slowly, I'm enjoying it thoroughly & plan to say a word or two about it on my blog when I'm finished.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Well said, Lorraine. (You listening, Roentgen?)

And how nice that Gary at Inkmusings told you about the book. I can't wait to hear what you think.

Roentgen said...

As you know, Barbara ,(or should)listening is very difficult for me. I am reading however. As long as I've been accused of only reading the classics, let me quote from Hemingway (if indeed he's considered classic) concerning the "current" state of publishing: "There's a lot of writing going on, but very little literature." One more Hemingway anecdote. Marlena Dietrich and Hemingway were great pals. One day Dietrich called Hemingway complaining that she hadn't worked in years and was only being offered lousy roles and was going to accept one and wanted Hemingways advice. He replied, "Don't confuse movement with action." But what did he know. Perhaps he was living and writing a lie. Maybe his "truest" book was Islands in the Stream.
Be that as it may, I stand by my earlier comment that the true job and obligation of the writer in society in the 21st century is to write FLUFF.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Oh, Roentgen....You are so funny. I know that, because I know you, but I fear blog visitors won't pick up from the tone of your comment that you are KIDDING. And don't say that you're not.

Roentgen said...

Well, perhaps kidding just a trifle - a bit of fiction. But as we've discussed, maybe the only road to truth is through fiction - certainly not through revisionistic history books or biased journalism. What sayeth thee? or thees?

Lorianne said...

Barbara, so far I like what I've read: I started the book way back in November (yikes!), so I'm reading in dribs & drabs. But writing (and reading!) in dribs & drabs is so much better than waiting until you have uninterrupted time, 'cause *that* never comes!

(I say this from experience, having finished--eventually!--a dissertation that was written in Busy Woman bits & pieces, WITH a timer!) :-)

While I'm slow-poking through Pen on Fire (and writing & blogging in the meantime), I've had the book listed on my AllConsuming "Currently Reading" blog sidebar list. I noticed yesterday that someone had followed the link to Amazon & bought the book, so *gradually* the word's getting out. :-)

Michael Renshaw said...

I don't think writing is about fluff or literature. These are assessments of a written work that are only possible after the writing is finished. Perhaps categorizing belongs to the critic or the reader, but not to the writer in the process of writing. Sure, one could argue about formula writing but that is not what I am referring to here.

There must be a degree of pleasure in the writing process. Without the pleasure, why write? It's like talking about something with a group of people. It's always a lot easier and more fun to talk about something we know well. Perhaps that's why we tend to become friends with people who like and know the same things we do. It's easier to maintain a conversation that way.

I think of writing as being a conversation with the process (and eventually the reader) and, like talking, it's easier if I write about things I know or feel strongly about. Does that mean I have to limit my writing to the narrow scope of my immediate world? No, not at all. Fiction is fiction. It means I take what I know and feel and wrap it up in a story that somehow feels real. It works along the same line as the funniest humor is funny because it is so true, even if it is not factual.

I think my best writing occurs when I can't wait to see what happens next. The characters have established themselves and the story is waiting to be told. It's not forced because I already know the background because it is a natural extension of what I already know. It's the detail and the life of my characters that is the exciting part. Will it be fluff or literature? I'll leave that to the readers and critics to decide.