Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Story of a Lifetime

Thank you, Laura, for reminding us of Margaret Mitchell's sweeping epic, Gone With the Wind. Ms. Mitchell had little confidence that her story would ever be completed or even considered worthy of publication, and she kept her chapters stuffed in envelopes and stored in a closet. After ten years of writing and painstaking research, she won the Pulitzer Prize for the book and sold the movie rights for $50,000, the largest sum ever paid at that time. The movie set records for winning the most awards, which included Best Picture. Understandably, she was completely unprepared for the resulting fame and the disruption it caused in her homelife.

It is easy to see how an author could be overwhelmed to the point of paralyzing writer's block in the face of such unpredictable accomplishments, and perhaps that is the reason she never wrote another novel. But she has said that her book was about survival, about the people who had gumption and those who didn't. Would someone who wrote so eloquently about fearless tenacity become overwhelmed by success and notoriety to the point that they feared both failure and fame? It is quite possible, since our best writing often comes from wrestling with our own deep-seated fears. Story can empower us to drag our fears out of their dark caves into the sunlight that shrivels them down to a manageable size. Unlike her fearless Scarlett, perhaps Ms. Mitchell saw those yellow eyes gazing out from the depths and just backed away.

Gone With the Wind was the culmination of exposure to her Confederate relatives' constant rehashing of the Civil War at the turn of the century, and of living on Peachtree Street in historic Atlanta. Perhaps everything about her life contributed to one powerful novel. It may have required another lifetime - a different lifetime - to write another.

I wonder, if given the opportunity to write one incredibly authentic story with enduring characters whose names became household words, and of achieving success of this magnitude, would I be satisfied, or would I feel the need to write another book? How about you?


Kathleen Popa said...

Look what we're doing with our pages, folks: stuffing them in the closet, throwing them out the window. When it comes to writing, we are not well people.

A favorite quote from Tolstoy:

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in twenty years’ time by those by who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it, and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.

I think if I could do that, I might want to do it again and again and again.

Susan Storm Smith said...

Oh my goodness! Nudge, nudge. Is that you God saying, "see, you can do it."

The last novel I wrote I gave to my second daughter who wanted something personal from me just in case I didn't return from Africa. It is still in an unedited condition, piled together in a big box, ribbon tied. I think of it often :p

Anonymous said...

What's the price, though? Tolstoy so thoroughly alienated everyone round about him--and pretty much destroyed his wife in the process of creating his great works-- that I wonder.

Neither MItchell nor Lee were particularly happy women and they didn't have families. Great works of literature (GWTW?) yes, but at a huge price. I know I'm not willing to pay that high a price--so what does that say about me?

Toss in the keyboard?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Susan, I put away my first manuscript for several years during a time of transition, and was prompted to pick it up again when my nine-year-old referred to it as though it were still a living, breathing thing. I think God speaks through my kids sometimes. I didn't publish that book, but it put me back on track with my hands-on 'education' until I finally had one that did.

Michelle, I'm glad we are not all called to write the great American novel! I have always put my family first, but scraped enough time out of my busy schedule to creep toward publication. Who knows whether Lee and Mitchell would have had happy lives if they hadn't written?

Unknown said...

I'm traveling, so I'm reading and not commenting much, but I have a brief moment - It is interesting to talk about writing and misery - there were so many miserable writers (I always worry when someone tells me they wish to emulate Hemingway. I tell them to aim higher - the man killed himself!)

As far are the cause of these writer's misery and the fact they produced only one work, one could ask the 'chicken or egg' question. Was it the effort of creating a second great work that drove them 'round the bend? Or were the seeds of discontent already well buried in them long before they put pen to paper? I think the latter.

Art is demanding - and as writers of Christian fiction it is important we answer its demands in measured ways. We do all things as unto the Lord (to sound all King James about it) - that includes writing. When we allow art and all its demands to consume our souls we lose the greatest of God's blessings for us. Of life and art, life is the nobler cause.

Laura J. Davis said...

I had a friend (who recently died), who had loads and loads of manuscripts that she wouldn't let anyone read. She loved to write for the pure joy of writing and spent hours at her typewriter (no computer). Before she died, much to the disappointment of everyone - she burned all her manuscripts!

In her case, it was paralyzing fear that kept her from sharing her stories with the world. In Ms. Mitchell's case, I imagine fear is what kept her from writing another word as well. Or maybe she only had that one story in her.

For myself - I would be satisfied with one great story, but I don't think I would quit writing as it gives me too much pleasure.

Unknown said...

Bit I know about Margaret Mitchell - she suffered anxiety, and was always horribly afraid of crossing the road in traffic.
When she died (she was crossing the road, a car barreling down on her and her companion - and instead of dashing to the far side of the street and out of harms way like her companion did, she turned ran back to the other curb, unwittingly throwing herself in the path of yet another car), she had another book on the go - and while her process was slow, there was little doubt that she would have produced a second book and probably more. She was riddled with anxiety and doubt, but she did write every day and intended to publish again.

And on that cheerful note, I must wish you Ta!

Unknown said...

I just wanted to chime in that GWTW is one of my top 5 favorite novels of all time. Exquisitely written. An absolute work of art.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Debbie! Very thought provoking.

Michelle, that was a good point about the characters of some of the great writers. I was deeply affected by reading Paul Johnson's book, Intellectuals. He took a hard look at many of the thinkers who affected the thinking processes of millions of people; and yet themselves had not only "feet of clay" but in some cases were so misanthropic as to completely contradict the noble ideas about which they wrote.

I didn't get the impression, though, that most of them sacrificed everything to their work. Rather, they sacrificed everyone around them to their own egos!

Have you read that book?

Latayne C Scott

Anonymous said...

Haven't read that book by Johnson, Latayne, but I suspect your assessment is correct. I don't believe an artist needs to be tortured, or should torture--discipline can handle a lot of that.

But sometimes I do wonder if a little madness is part of the creative life. :-)

At least that's the excuse I use for the whirling brain! :-)

Kathleen Popa said...

Michelle, I don't think you're far from the truth. Check out this passage from Susan K. Perry's Writing in Flow:

It shouldn't play into any of your anxieties about the loss of control that comes with flow if I share with you that looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking. "Schizophrenic thinking is characterized by a cognitive style that has been variously called overinclusive, allusive, loose or characterized by the term 'mental slippage,'" writes Eysenck, a noted researcher in the field... For the psychotic or creative individual, the concept of relevance is itself broadened. For a writer such looseness is an amazing asset.

Carl Jung, contrasting James Joyce to his daughter Lucia, said that they were "like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving."

Shouldn't play into any of our anxieties? Oh really?

Anonymous said...

I would be happy with one "great" novel. But I too couldn't stop writing! It's like breathing, it's something I have to do! I also agree, there is always a little madness in creativity.

Tana said...

I need to write, it's like breathing -stopping would not be a good thing for me. BTW, thank you for the inspiration.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

T Anne:
We are all happy to help! We all need it from time to time. Writing can be such a solitary business.

Janet said...

I think I would love to produce one great, blockbuster book. For me, I think it might result in even less pressure, the freedom to craft slowly and carefully without financial pressure.

I would also give myself the permission to come in second to the first book. ;o)