Monday, April 17, 2023

Writing vs Writing About Writing

Annamaria on Monday


I am inspired here by critical biographies I have been reading: about Michelangelo and about two writers: William Shakespeare, who needs no introduction, and Isak Dinesen, who under her real name—Karen Blixen—appears as a fictionalized character in my Africa series.  The readings are part of research I have taken up with my life-long friend Kate, who shares my predilection for pursuing study just for the fun of it.


In these endeavors, we began with my favorite ever book about the Bard—Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt.  Because so much of Shakespeare’s life remains mysterious, it is extremely difficult for scholars to work out how the glovemaker’s son got to be the greatest of writers.  In his brilliant study, Greenblatt takes the few facts we know about Wil—the boy and the man, the history of the England that surrounded him, and the details of what was going on in London and its theater world when Shakespeare was one of its major players.  For instance, we know that the Brits beheaded their criminals (and political opponents, for that matter) and displayed their severed heads on London bridge.  It is impossible to imagine that Shakespeare lived in London and never walked over the bridge.  Greenblatt then shows us vivid scenes from the plays in which heads rolled. The nice thing about his book is that Greenblatt says he is working with conjecture.  It’s fun to imagine how the sights Will saw influenced what came out in the plays.  But Greenblatt’s connections come only as suggestions.  


When Kate and I went on to Michelangelo, we read one critical biographer who pushed his luck with me. Perhaps to dazzle us with his depth of study, he points to all kinds of resemblances between images on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and works of other artists he is certain Michelangelo had seen, or perhaps only probably was familiar with.  In his book, he presents the resemblances as direct, conscious copying (the author said “quoting”) from the works of others.  In other words, he is saying—so to speak, “I know exactly where Michelangelo got the idea for the position of Ezekiel’s head in the Sistine chapel.  He saw it in a fresco in the Church of Santa Croce.”  Really, you know that for sure?


My beef with this is that some people who study an artist or writer’s creative output think they so perfectly understand their subject’s creative process that they can trace exactly where the ideas came from.


Maybe.  I guess.  SOMETIMES!


Then, on my own, I have been reading a biography of Karen Blixen that also got my hackles up.  The author describes people that Karen met in Africa and finds people with similar characteristics in the tales of Isak Dinesen and concludes that Karen intentionally put a carbon copy of a real person into a story decades later.  What bothers me is the mechanical nature of all this.  Given that there is not one creative process, that it differs from person to person, how can people who very likely never met their subject be so sure that they understand exactly they went through the writer or the artist’s mind when they were making their art.


In these to me overly confident analyses, the creative processes is reduced to one idea in, the same idea out.  I don’t think people as great as those cited could have gotten to their heights by such predicable means.  Perhaps I am so passionate about this because my own process is nothing like that.  I cannot control my fictional people.  They take over the story, and sometimes surprise me, and to me that feels more creative, not less.


 I am studying Karen Blixen’s life so that I can make my fictionalized version of her  words and actions jibe with the real woman’s.  No matter what, I will not have “my” Karen do objectionable things that the real Karen never did.  Other than that, when my fictional Karen talks, I just write down what my imagination tells me she says.  Sometimes, she says to my fictional people things the real Karen actually wrote to her mother.  But not all the time.


So what about you, my fellow writers.  Does your process allow you to consciously take people you have known and put them in your stories?  Do you purposefully summon them?   Or do you only recognize them after they have shown up of their own accord?  


  1. What a fascinating post, Annamaria! I rarely include real public figures in my books, although I did a short story for one of the Bouchercon anthologies where I set a dinner at Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca. Around the table with Charlie Fox and her client were Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Marilyn Monroe, and I made up the dialogue between them entirely using quotes of things they were supposed to have actually said. Tricky, but great fun to do!

    Other than that, I have had various people win charity auctions to be included in my books, and I usually try to include some of their likes and dislikes, but not their words or appearance.

    It's one of those tiresome things non-book people do at parties. They nudge each other and say, "Oh, watch what you say, or she'll put you in one of her books!" No, actually, I won't. (Sometimes just on principle.)

    These are usually the same people who tell you, with an odd kind of pride, usually, that they don't read.

    To which, a quick-witted friend once responded, "We can teach you..."

    1. Thank you, Zoe! When I was writing "Never Work for a Jerk," I based an anecdote in the book about a real awful boss--an exec in one of client companies. But I changed his name. My daughter, who was then in high school, was afraid the jerk would recognize himself and sue me. I reassured her, saying that jerks never see themselves in a bad light. Later, I thought that such a lawsuit would have given the book the gift lots of delicious notoriety!! Maybe authors should do it on purpose??

      AND, I want to read that short story. RIGHT NOW. Please tell me the title of the anthology!!!

    2. LOL, the story was called 'Kill Me Again Slowly' and appeared in MURDER UNDER THE OAKS, edited by Art Taylor. The anthology won the Anthony Award that year, for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection - and very proud to be one of the contributors I was, too!

  2. I don't think we ever consciously use someone we know as a character in a book. I can only once recall when Stan was concerned that one character was too extreme, I remembered a person who had behaved exactly that way. So who knows what the subconscious is up to!

    1. As I recall, Michael, the dead body in A Carrion Death carries the name of a real person . If my memory serves me, you and I visited him at his beautiful home in Jo'burg, where his lovely wife gave a delicious lunch. And he was delightfully ALIVE! Tell me that this is real memory and not a figment of my (ahem) imagination.

  3. I think of myself as an inveterate body snatcher summoning up physical and psychological characteristics I've observed in those with whom I've crossed paths over the years, all in service to the development of characters clamoring to be included in my story--uhh, their story.

  4. I loved the idea of 'studying' with a friend. And (like Jeffrey?) I've always stalker-snatched bits of bodies and brains and occasionally names of encounterees--but usually only to start with. Once planted in the draft they take root and grow their own way.

  5. I love this post, Annamaria! I am currently working on something where Henry James is a character, so I can identify. As a screenwriter, however, I have, put a producer into one of my scripts as the villain, when she made me change England to NY! She never noticed, of course.