When I first began writing seriously in the early 1990s, I took to reading literary biographies as a way of defining myself as a writer. I was thrilled to find how quickly I recognized my own struggles in the lives of famous authors. I also saw the shared personality traits that prompt certain kinds of people to explore the possibilities of living the artist’s life. Nothing strengthens and focusses an emerging identity more than the chance to identify thoroughly with others who are already there and have blazed the trail, so to speak.
H. G. Wells makes a good role model for the commercially inclined genre writer. (Photo: public domain)
While of limited use to dedicated literary writers, any would-be author who aspires to sell well and achieve wide popularity and respect can profit from studying the life of H. G. Wells. If you wrestle with the common conflict over whether to go literary or commercial with your writing, Wells will prove especially interesting as he wrote, with varying degrees of success, across a number of genres including sci-fi thrillers, novels of ideas, and serious literary novels. The commercial and literary options seemed mutually exclusive to me and trying to decide which way to go affected my writing for years with first one side and then the other gaining ascendancy. In the end, I borrowed a page from Wells’ book. I now wrestle with novels of ideas finding such works to be a satisfying blend of entertaining story and worthwhile philosophical musing.
Lovat Dickson, one of H. G. Wells’ biographers, claimed the literary world does not see Wells as a great writer, adding that the opinion-makers overlook the famous author because he did not write about morals. Dickson’s observation highlights the strong bias among literary critics that works dealing with moral issues are the most worthy of praise. As a result, only works of this kind are long-lived. Some have argued the absence of longevity for other works has more to do with lack of critical promotion and support than a dearth of literary merit. This may well be true, but in real life, human beings are always concerned with the morality of actions, events, and situations so it seems entirely reasonable, inevitable even, that the same concern should apply to fictional portrayals of life and the world.
Moral novels attract wider critical attention and are more likely to achieve longevity. (Image: public domain)
Many famous writers have used the people in their lives as grist for the authorial mill. The spicy roman à clef has long been a frequent visitor to bookshop shelves. Even more common are realistic novels based on the lives of actual people, but where no deliberate effort is made to link with the objects of inspiration. In other words, the real people are convenient sources of material, yet too obscure to be of interest to the reading public. The writer’s own life may also end up on the page. If his own experiences predominate, a struggle with illness, say, we call these works autobiographical novels, but in many cases, the lives of people around the writer are also included and the situation becomes less clear-cut.
D. H. Lawrence was notorious for using lovers, friends, and acquaintances as thinly disguised characters in his sexually explicit novels. (Photo: public domain)
Opinions vary as to the merits of drawing on real people for inspiration. The competing view is that characters are better created from imagination especially for the job of telling a particular story, highlighting some aspect of human nature, or revealing the human condition. The latter being that rather nebulous concept which “includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, or awareness regarding the inescapability of death” (Wikipedia). A third position, which I am inclined to share, claims pure imagining is impossible.
I suffer from manic-depressive illness. In the early nineties, I was newly diagnosed and recovering from a complete nervous breakdown. A few years earlier, realizing I had a terrible problem, but not knowing its true nature, I had taken refuge in a shack near a 10,000-acre tree farm that bordered the British Columbia wilderness. All told, I was to spend sixteen years there, many of them in combative cognitive-behaviour therapy.
Winter can be hard on hermit writers trying to live on the cheap. (Image: WPClipart)
Old ambitions of becoming a writer had resurfaced so, being essentially shipwrecked anyway, I decided to live off my savings and have a go at writing full-time. The 1990s proved chaotic and painful years for me, so much so that I was never able to finish anything, yet they “made” me as a writer. For years, I kept a diary of my struggles. Those of you who long to be a hermit – writers or otherwise – may romanticize such an existence, especially one lived in a beautiful semi-wilderness area teeming with wildlife, yet the lifestyle itself really is quite mundane. What matters is what you do with all the time. I invested mine in making Jung’s journey of individuation and learning how to write. These two immensely rewarding activities literally transformed my life.
Writers, and anyone else who takes reading seriously, should consider keeping a reading diary. It is amazing how such a diary can shake loose powerful insights that enhance your understanding of the literary world and even life itself. The steady accumulation of thoughts about books, writers, and ideas has a way of revealing your own innate philosophy of life and can become a treasure trove of material should the impulse strike to do some writing of your own.
A reading diary can prompt powerful insights that enhance your understanding of the literary world and even life itself. Some of this blog’s posts are based on my own diary entries. (Image: Pixabay)
I strongly urge young would-be writers to keep a record of their reading. Believe me; you will not regret the time and effort required. You probably toy with the idea from time to time already. Listen to yourself. Not only will you reap the benefits I have already outlined, you will also find the steady stream of entries a natural form of rewarding writing exercise.
All wannabe authors must learn not only how to write but how to get the writing done. Surprisingly, the latter is often the harder struggle. Books about writing technique and internet sites with writing tips are abundant and easy to understand. If you have the time and resources, there are many formal writing courses available. Most people develop the basic skills simply by writing something on a regular basis. Almost anything will do: an habitually kept diary or journal, chaotically produced draft versions of assorted incomplete works, or copious entries in notebooks meant to be useful (i.e. coherent and readable) later on. I have written in all these ways. You probably have too.
To take the next step in your writing project, you must be able to see the next step. Plans do work. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)
H. G. Wells was a sensual man whose taste for young women got him into trouble on a number of occasions. His famous and explosive affair with journalist and author Rebecca West is only one of many such adventures. Being an intelligent man, Wells was aware of the price he paid for these extra-marital indiscretions, yet he continued with them throughout his life.
Rebecca West is perhaps H. G. Wells’ most famous lover. Their affair has been described as “explosive.” (Photo: public domain)
Biographer Lovat Dickson writes that Wells’ struggles with sensuality ended up in his novels: “the anguish of the sensual man who has to conform to the hard rigour of life.” Personally, I think that Wells was a bit schizoid about the issue of sensuality. At times he emits, as Dickson puts it when discussing The Sea Lady, “a low passionate cry of distress for beauty lost and pleasures forgone in the line of duty.” Dickson goes on to claim that for Wells, “to withstand the temptation to escape, to turn resolutely aside from desire, not to know the glorious swift rushing imaginative passion — that is the beginning of death in life.” Yet, as Dickson correctly points out, Wells sees only ruin in the pursuit of sensuality: “But the end of the escape is the death of hopes, ambitions, even life itself.” The idea that yielding to sensuality brings disaster originates in Wells’ failure to gain a science degree after falling in love – while still a student – with his cousin Isabel.
Whether we write extempore or develop an outline, writers discover what happens next in the plot. Along the way, we discover unexpected aspects of our characters. This is why we need not worry about those dreaded “cookie cutter” stereotypes. With some sense of plot and characters, we go on to learn how our story material or idea works as a whole. We can see how portions of the story relate to each other and to the work in its entirety. From the writer’s perspective, during the drafting or outlining process, intricacy has grown out of a relatively simple original conception.
Writers and readers see the intricacy, time duration, and pacing of a work of fiction quite differently. (Image: public domain.)
I am a devout lover of literary biographies and have read a great many over the years. My introduction to H. G. Wells came by way of Lovat Dickson’s book H. G. Wells; His Turbulent Life and Times. Dickson, a Canadian, lived for many years in London where he worked for the prestigious publishers Macmillan & Company. His job brought him into Wells’ circle and the two men became well acquainted. This publishing relationship allows Dickson to present Wells as a writer vividly.
Young H. G. Wells is a good example of the writer of modest means struggling to write full time. (Photo: public domain)
Wells’ early days as a would-be author are a fascinating portrait of a young ambitious writer of limited means. Like many other lower-class writers of the late 19th century, Wells faced early poverty and waged long struggles with his family as he tried to break free of their limited worldview and escape from his lowly origins. Even now, it is still true that most families cannot conceive of writing as a legitimate career. Today’s young writers are still fighting the battles Wells had to fight.
A grateful thank you to Phillip McCollum for nominating me for this interesting award. In his own acceptance post, Phillip says he’s horrible when it comes to following up on blog awards. His humble honest admission filled me with guilt. No one is more tardy with award follow-ups than I am. I got to thinking what a terrible person I must be (again). Then I realized that some of us are not comfortable shouldering a lot of praise. With this cunning piece of rationalization under my belt, I was saved from another round of depression — not to mention some nasty self-assessment!