Henry James on Life and Writing

From last week’s writing blog about Edith Wharton, I move to Henry James. Although his proseDSC02079 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.

He looks as if he lived well...
He looks as if he lived well…

“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.

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