From last week’s writing blog about Edith Wharton, I move to Henry James. Although his prose is sometimes hard for my contemporary mind to plow through, it’s rich and compelling, representative of an era. And I have two lovely first editions on the office bookshelves, thanks to the generosity of a child who knows my love for this fine author. Let’s look at some of his thoughts on writing and life!
“She feels in italics and thinks in CAPITALS.” The good news is that women in James’ work THOUGHT — about something other than men. This was an unusual act for females depicted in the late 19th century. The italics remind me that my characters need fluid emotions, whereas the CAPITALS indicate I need to share their thoughts in compelling, straightforward ways. Remember, “show, don’t tell.”
“I’m glad you like adverbs — I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” We’ve seen the adjective shot to smithereens in quotes from other authors (Hemingway comes to mind), but a well-placed adverb can add movement and passion to writing. I was delighted to find that James adored them. Choose emphasis carefully.
“It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined.” Isn’t writing about living and imagination?It’s hard for me to write if I’m not engaging with other people: observing them, listening to them, analyzing them. (Yea. I’m that creeper at the coffee shop.) Think of the vibrant, raucous lives of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and don’t be afraid to get out of your writing cave to live a life worth sharing. Do it.
“I intend to judge things for myself; to judge wrongly, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all.” I don’t think James is talking about moral judgment here, but I think he’s expecting authors to observe and think and draw reasonable conclusions. It’s this process that brings truth to writing, and an authenticity to which readers can relate. Keep it real.
“Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Leave a little of the romance and passion to the readers’ imaginations. Thank you.
“Obstacles are those frightening things you see when you take you eyes off your goal.” Keep…writing.
My following has just crested 50,000, spans 26 countries, and is populated by amazing people. I am so thankful for a cyber-family whose adventures sometimes exceed my own.
One among this tribe is on a grand journey. She’s kayaking the Amazon River from a newly discovered source near the peak of Mount Mismi in Peru. From there, she’ll paddle down the Apuimac River on a 4,225-mile journey that includes Class III, IV, and V rapids, and 3,800 miles of downriver sea kayaking. I cruised the Amazon in March (which some of you might remember) and will highlight that country next year as I complete the third manuscript in my series.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear now, though: I would NEVER kayak the Amazon.
My Amazon sunset photo.
Anacondas (“Miss Annie,” according to our guides). Tarantulas. Poison Dart Frogs as colorful as precious stones. Caimans. Piranhas. Do I need more reasons to avoid these waters in anything smaller than the Queen Mary 2? I think not. But she’s out there, paddling away as I respect her spirit, courage, and resilience from the comfort of my office chair, perched safely in my hermitage atop America’s Rocky Mountains.
I highly recommend you share this journey investigating one of few remaining unexplored parts of our planet. Her blog link is below.
As much as I enjoy Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, I confess a lifelong adoration of Edith Wharton (1862—1937). Well after Darcy offended LIzzie and shortly after Heathcliff roamed the moors, Wharton won a Pulitzer (and was thrice nominated for the Nobel) in literature. This “bluestocking” author brilliantly used dramatic irony to criticize the upper class from which she came. So it’s no wonder she also made some astute observations about writing and art, some of which I’m sharing here.
Mind your manners.“I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author’s political views.” Unless your work in progress is of a political nature, best to keep your politics to yourself and remain invisible as an author. Politics and opinions saturate the media, so let’s invent something more productive and positive with our talent.
Your writing can outlive you.“One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.” If you’re fortunate enough to become a famous author, your work will speak for you. So write carefully, live fully, see grandly, and be thankful for your talent (even if publishers don’t recognize it).
Find your voice—and your sight.“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” Despite publishing’s risk-averse straightjacket, there will never be another Hemingway, or JK Rowling, or (I pray) E. L. James. Every person, therefore author, is a uniquely created child of God, and we should share our originality with the world. (If we plan to make money, we need also ensure our vision coincides with market demand.)
Be original.“A classic is a classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard of). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Note a theme? Wharton dared to defy convention (in many ways, so check out her biography and writing). Her progressive life and insightful writing were symbiotic, yielding great personal and professional fruit. She was not a copy—and our writing shouldn’t be either.
Do you have a favorite Wharton book or short story? Perhaps right before Halloween is the perfect time to read some of her famous ghost stories and discover this talented American writer.
Brisk air laced with wood smoke; crunchy grass burdened by early-morning frost; quivering dogs sniffing upland-game-bird scent cones. These three elements are the perfect fall hunt.
And then there’s Little Gem.
Little Gem in the maze field.
A five-month-old German Shorthair of impeccable lineage, she’ll be a fine birder. I know this because the day before our sashay with Little Gem, her mom, Mira, led us to (and retrieved) two-dozen-plus fowl. We encouraged our guide, Andrea, to bring Little Gem into the field for a first exposure to upland game birds, and Andrea wisely put a long rope on the pup in case she went AWOL — or worse yet, prematurely flushed a wily chukar, pheasant, hun, or grouse that could grace our table this winter.
Should she follow me, or her mom?
Little Gem focused on mimicking the other dogs’ behavior, zigging and zagging in ever-narrowing cones. She sometimes paused, looking for advice from Andrea, who raised Little Gem until the pup graduated to the ranch kennel. Short legs worked twice as hard to penetrate maze and grass, and bound up hills. We were mindful that shaking stalks indicated a puppy’s awakening to her potential.
Late in the day, Little Gem went on a shaky point, which we laughed off while praising her. Then Mira pointed at the spot, affirming her child’s conviction that something winged was hiding there. The grouse that lumbered from tall grass was Little Gem’s first birding victory.
Watching the pup reminded me of child-rearing. Excitement, effort, guidance, discipline, and encouragement create productive, functioning humans. Those parameters also yield fine bird dogs. My prayer of thanksgiving for two grown kids was heartfelt as I unzipped my hunting vest to massage a slightly bruised shooting shoulder while cutting toward the truck. Yards from putting away shotguns and kenneling dogs for the bumpy ride to the ranch house, a rooster pheasant rose in a short flight.
The retrieve was a final act in Little Gem’s brilliant opening performance.