When I started writing, I realized that I had learned an awful lot about fiction and publishing from the greats—their lives and words had been there all along. Here are some of my favorite lessons, passed on to you:
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet. Early portrait. Image by © Bettmann/CORBISEmily Dickinson--I’ve learned a lot from the Belle of Amherst—this is only a tiny corner of what she had to teach me.
Lesson: Your editors are not evil—they really do have your best interest in mind.
How I learned it: Much has been made of Emily Dickinson’s editors, and how the six poems she published during her lifetime were horribly maimed before they were printed. Those editors were trying, in their way, to get Emily’s work out to the people. The changes they made—though not literarily awesome—were there to help for public consumption. But Emily wasn’t looking for fame, she was looking for greatness (undoubtedly achieved) and the changes hurt her heart too much to continue. After her death, editors who saw that literary greatness went through her preciously tied bundle of poems and edited them with the delicate, precise cuts of that guy who carves masterpieces on the head of a pin. The results were the fey, ethereal, profound works that we teach high school students today.
Walt Whitman--Walt Whitman is often remembered as a weathered elderly man, and I’m pretty sure he was given the epithet of “The old gray poet”. (It was close, dammit—I don’t have that textbook anymore!) But while we all age, it’s unfortunate to forget Whitman’s youth, which was spent as a very hale, sexy, bisexual man with a voracious appetite for life.
Lesson--Don’t crave instant fame. It’s the body of work that counts.
How I Learned It--Whitman spent much of his career—and his life—revising his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass. The book—which suffered four editions during his lifetime—started out as a booklet of around twelve poems. By the time he died there were nearly 400. Whitman’s style was cutting edge when he started—raw, visceral, sometimes erotic, celebrating the human body as well as the spirit and intellect. At first, he was considered porn. He was not considered a poet. But he kept writing, kept revising, kept adding to the brilliance of his work. I’m not sure when he caught on, or when he began to sell, but eventually, it happened for him. Of course, by the time it had, other poets who emulated him were The Next Big Thing, and Whitman wasn’t. His time to be The Next Big Thing had passed. He became known as a grandfatherly sort of man, caring for his ailing mother, communicating quietly with his fellow artists—but not for breaking ground as a brilliant new voice. Which sort of sucked, because he spent his life fighting, fornicating and living in a grand and illustrious way and our poetry would not be the same without him.
But his work continued. It endured. Whitman is the reason to keep writing, to keep adding to the body of my work, to know that there may never be the giant cataclysmic bestseller in my pantheon—but there will be a pantheon.
Anne Bradstreet--One of America’s first female voices, Bradstreet was a devout Puritan who lived simply and wrote poetry. Her work was first published without her permission—her brother in law, I think, took her poems to England and published them as a surprise. (Surprise! People are dissecting your entrails at dinner parties—how much are you loving me now?)
Lesson--Eventually, no matter how unprepared you feel, you have to let your work go.
How I Learned It--After Bradstreet’s small volume of poems was published, she asked for a chance to revise them for re-release, and when she did, she added THIS POEM. The poem calls her work “Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain” and talks about the pain of having her work subjected to prying eyes before she was ready. And the conclusion (one could argue) is that our words are never enough. Our editing is never enough. That the divine (in her case, the Christian God) can produce perfect work, but Anne Bradstreet was only human and a simple woman. She would have to be happy with what she could manage. In the simplest of verse and the purest of humility, Bradstreet breaks down what it means to be a writer and to share the most intimate parts of ourselves, no matter how unwillingly. She also states, in no uncertain terms, one of the greatest of human tragedies: Words are not enough. Words are never enough. But they are all we have, and we must love them as the children of our minds.
Washington Irving--People remember Washington Irving for The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and The Devil and Tom Walker--but he published those works under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. They were his most successful works—and though Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollowwere from his well-received first book, his second book, the one with The Devil and Tom Walker in it was not nearly as critically acclaimed.
Lesson--Don’t let the bad reviews of one book stop you from believing in yourself.
How I Learned It--Irving was convinced that the book containing The Devil and Tom Walker was some of his finest work—and it didn’t sell badly. But the criticism he received was harsh—and he doubted himself. He closed down the Geoffrey Crayon pseudonym, and while he published some other pieces after Tom Walker, he allowed his disheartenment to cripple his fiction.
That’s too bad. He was right--The Devil and Tom Walker is brilliant political and social satire, and scathing in its denouncement of what are still some of capitalism’s least attractive qualities. This is a piece that pulls high school students from their boredom and makes them realize that the same evils are being performed in the same ways. It makes them very cognizant that although the technology of the world has changed, some of the basic truths about mankind remain. In short, it’s everything we love about fiction, and its capacity to capture humanity in all of its flaws and glory.
So it’s important to learn to lick your wounds from bad reviews—and then come back from it. Imagine what Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman, could have done for American literature if Irving had been able to overcome his initial hurt.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--A professor of poetry and one of the “Five Fireside Poets”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was known for his lyrical poetry with intense, dramatic stories. The Song of Hiawatha and The Midnight Ride of Paul Reverewere in America’s top ten, and in spite of his personal tragedies, Longfellow finished out his life as a beloved and well-respected writer.
Lesson--Don’t let your image get in the way of your greatest work.
How I Learned It--Longfellow lost his first wife to miscarriage and his second wife to a fire—that he witnessed. His correspondence all points to a true love and a truly broken heart. A few months after his death, the sonnet “A Cross of Snow” was discovered. In the poem we don’t see the gentle lyricist who gave us beautiful rhythms and charming rhymes. Instead we see the embittered husband, betrayed by death in the most painful of ways, raging against the God who subjected him to this pain. It’s a brief, searing piece of literature. I could have taught Paul Revere a thousand times and not have my heart moved as much as one reading of “Cross of Snow”. Longfellow didn’t want anybody to see it—he hid it from his family even. His family didn’t want it published. This was not the man they wanted remembered.
But in remembering the man who wrote that poem, we remember a complete man—a talented poet, a devoted husband and father, and a living breathing person who could rage at the stars with the rest of us humans.
He’s a man worth remembering.
Oh man—I could do this all night. I could talk about Beowulf and Gawain andFrankenstein and… And maybe I will. This is definitely a topic worth revisiting. But in meantime, what’s important to take away here is that it’s easy to think that in the new era of instant information, we invented literature, genre fiction, and the problems of the modern writer.
It’s important to remember that there is nothing new under the sun.
Great writing lasts, and the lessons of great writers carry on as well. Their lives can be as inspirational as their words, and as educational. The one thing that’s changed with the advent of the modern age is that we don’t have to go back to our giant twenty-pound English lit tomes in order to remember their lessons.
Today, it’s available at our fingertips.