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What I Learned about Writing This Week…from Mark Twain

Faking It

Dearest inklings, I come to you today with a heavy heart. I have a confession to make.

For someone with an English degree, my experience with classic English literature is rather abominable.

You know how we speak of someone’s being well-read? In some circles, I’d be the opposite of that: terribly-read. I can cite you some fantastic German literature as proof of my being not wholly ignorant (Goethe, anyone?) — but then I grew up in Germany, so that’s kind of to be expected. Somehow, though, I managed to get all the way to the college graduate level without having read most of the books American students tend to read in high school.

Oh, I can hold forth on plot and character of a great many classics: Captains Courageous, Oliver Twist, Ben Hur, Moby Dick… I can converse on these so convincingly, you’ll come away from our tête-à-tête thinking I’m all sorts of brilliantly literate. You won’t know that when it comes to classic literature, I’m kind of a fake.

Getting Caught

How did I become such a convincing fake? Well, that’s easy: I read ’em all as a kid — the abridged versions. All the important characters and plot points a kid would glom onto — with very little of the nuance and artistry an adult would appreciate. And thus, I know just enough to make you all think I’m one of these amazing classic literature guru-type people.

Sometimes, though, I get caught. At a recent writers meeting (mayhap the NaNoWriMo End Party, I can’t remember), somebody said something about the classic novel The Prince and the Pauper. I tossed in the remark, “Oh, by Charles Dickens.”

Jessie, sitting across from me, cocked her head and frowned. “No…Mark Twain wrote that.”

Googling ensued. To my dismay, Jessie was right. Me, I had to own up to being a fake. There’s nothing like swallowing your literary pride in front of a group of people who know enough to catch you out!

Getting Real

So, considering that my experience with Twain’s novel was 20 years in the past, I decided it was high time to take the first step in Faker’s Anonymous recovery. (Not so anonymous now.) I decided to read The Prince and the Pauper.

It was a romp. From start to finish, I found it engaging, heart-breaking, heart-warming, charming, amusing, infuriating (at the social injustice Twain highlights), and endearing. I was engrossed by how Twain wove history into his fiction, as I’ve always held a particular fascination for Henry VIII, his wives, and his children. (One of my first collegiate-level thesis papers was on Catherine of Aragon, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I.) Most of the plot came back to me as I read, and I was delighted to find that the abridged novel of my childhood stayed fairly true to the original book. But now I was getting it all in Twain’s voice, and it was delightful.

Getting Mad

Then I read the afterword, penned by someone named R. L. Fisher in 1988. This person (of whose gender I am unaware, so I can’t use “Mr.” or “Ms.”) calls the novel inferior and flat-out states that “Twain ignored his conscience” for not turning the novel into a scathing condemnation of the Tudor-era ruling class. Though Fisher claims to have enjoyed the novel, the afterword leaves no doubt of the reviewer’s displeasure over Twain’s goal to write nothing more than an “entertainment.”

I came away from that afterword irritated, my enjoyment of the story slightly tarnished. I won’t say Fisher ruined the story for me…but the childish joy I experienced in my reading of the novel has definitely faded a little.

It just goes to show that the old adage is true: You just can’t make everybody happy. No matter what you write, somebody’s going to criticize it. If you write something socially significant, someone’s going to say they’re offended. If you write to entertain, someone else will call you shallow. If you try to strike a balance, they’ll call you wishy-washy and ignore you until you slink away.

My solution? Just write the story. We talk a lot at Unstressed Syllables about paying attention to what readers need…but that’s more about good storycraft than it is a guideline for what atmosphere you should give the tale. Twain made his story fun. Sad in some parts, shocking in others — but all together, fun. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The tale called him to tell it that way. So he did.

I guess it comes down to where your loyalties as an artist lie. Will you sell out to popular opinion? (And is that prostituting your story? And is that being a fake?) Or will you stay true to who the characters are and to what the story wants to be, no matter what anyone else thinks?

Getting It

In this reading adventure, I started out as a fake and ended up with stronger convictions about sticking up for my stories. If I had to swallow a little pride to get a deeper taste of what it means to be a writer protective and jealous of her craft, I’d say it’s a fair trade.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

4 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing This Week…from Mark Twain”

  1. Josh Unruh says:

    Man, nerds really do ruin everything.

    I try very hard to not condemn something for being different than what I wanted UNLESS the artist led me to believe it was going to be the other thing and then pulled the rug out.

    Arguments that something is “X enough” usually receives a response from me along the lines of “then shut up and go write something that IS X enough and don’t talk again until you do.” Because, fact of the matter, that person is engaging the fiction, they’re engaging what they wanted from the fiction.

    • Josh, I think you hit it exactly: That reviewer seemed to believe all of Twain’s previous work had promised something else, and Twain betrayed his readers by giving them a different style of story.

      I, on the other hand, wasn’t thinking in terms of Twain’s other work; I just wanted a good yarn. The author promised me that on page one, and he delivered in fine fashion.

      I think “shut up and go write it yourself” is an excellent response. 😉

  2. Great questions about loyalties as a writer. I certainly don’t have the answers to all of them. But I really like the idea that one story can be “this” and another can be “that” and no one should expect a writer to do all the same things every time. Where is the fun in that, anyway?

    It really takes the pressure off when you think of just letting a story be what it needs to be and not trying to force it into any mold (including one the writer may have created).

    • Yes, we definitely create molds for ourselves and end up inhibiting our creativity. Inhibition, pressure, pointless expectation — all the antithesis of what we’re supposed to be! I don’t have all the answers either, but I do know that we should feel free (and others should give us the freedom) to branch out and try new things with our craft at any given time.

      Still, it’s hard to balance those loyalities, isn’t it? At what point does loyalty to our craft trump loyalty to readers? I don’t know if experience will teach us the answer to that — but I do know I don’t have enough experience to answer it now! 🙂