Books can do more than entertain us. They can teach us to be better writers--and people
1. Be Brave and Be Honest: The Vampire Lestat
“When a being reveals his pain in such a torrent, [one is] bound to respect the whole of the tragedy.” -Lestat de Lioncourt
Authors spend a lot of their lives in something akin to a horror movie. Many times when writing, especially about our own lives, we find ourselves walking in darkness, approaching doors that we know may very well hold a demon in check. Maybe this demon is the truth behind our failures. Maybe this demon is a crystal clear mirror reflecting our sins back to us. Maybe it is the truth of a marriage damaged beyond repair, a revelation on the nearness of our own death, or the truth of our own identity. Whatever the demon, we must open the door and confront this specter if our writing is to be provocative.
As discerning readers, we respect authors who reveal their pain and confront cold, hard truths.
Because all humans walk through those treacherous hallways where we are given the choice to unlock the portals to the truth or stay deaf and dumb to its revelations. We all stand in fear at those entrances, sweaty hands positioned on the knob, desperately hoping someone will give us the strength to pass through those doors we have been too afraid to open.
We crave honesty from authors because it validates our own emotions and experiences and emboldens us to move forward. It is painful, yes, but also transformative and mesmerizing. Through this magical process, an author’s strength makes a reader strong.
We have all experienced times where a writer’s courageous words made us audacious enough to change our world and, at other times, steeled us to accept piercing truths. Perhaps these truths are as Lestat utters them: “The prince is never going to come. Everyone knows that, and maybe sleeping beauty’s dead.”
Life is not all happily ever after. And if we want to drink the Kool-aid of optimism, we’ll turn on Disney.
Regardless of the lessons, the writer’s bold decision to be raw and honest in his writing gives the reader a final gift: a gift of connection to the whole of humanity.
Even Lestat, Anne Rice's tragically alienated being of the night, desires this connection in spite of the blindingly powerful pleasures bestowed upon him as an immortal. He states, “And there were moments in this fetid little paradise when I prayed that in spite of everything I was capable of, I was somehow kin to every mortal. Maybe I was not the exotic outcast that I imagined, but merely the dim magnification of every human soul.”
This is what reading can do for us all; it can remind us we are not alone in our journey and that, somewhere, at some time, someone has felt the same doubts, asked the same questions, and shared the same grief. But only if the writing is honest.
2. Be a Great Observer and Pay Attention to Details: Sherlock Holmes
“You see, but you do not observe.” -Sherlock Holmes
As writers, it is our job to bring the world to life on paper, whether it be our own lives we pen, the lives of fictitious others or a new world created entirely in our imagination. How do we do this? The use of imagery might be a writer’s first answer: the use of the senses to let our readers see, hear, and feel the inner workings of the characters.
However, how does this imagery bloom to life? Why can one author’s description leave frustrating blanks that our mind must tax itself to fill, and yet another author’s description has us somehow leaving our bodies, our small towns, our very existence to be transported into the form of a Roman soldier fighting for our lives on a blood-strewn battlefield or a sixteenth-century monarch walking towards our executioner?
The answer: observation.
Great writers are also great observers. They note the details, the tiny shards of glass embedded in a carpet that let them know something, someone is broken. The subtle shaking hand of the hand of a liar, the tiniest salty waters that creep into the eyes of a man on the verge of despair. The sequencing of colors as a rainbow emerges onto a landscape.
These tiny pieces gleaned from observation are what carry power for the writer. They are the throttle that powers the reader’s time machine into a different era or the catalyst for the astral projection that allows readers to leave their body and soul and enter into writers’ characters and worlds.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most revered character, Sherlock Holmes, presents a useful fact for writers when he states that “to a great mind, nothing is little.” And so must the writer be a master observer of the minuscule workings of nature, the seemingly inconsequential quirks and idiosyncrasies of human beings, the various and sundry clues that lead our reader to make the inferences we want them to make and to see the pictures in their head that we have created.
Sherlock admits himself that his genius is “founded upon the observation of trifles.” Ignore the cliched utterings of our society when it warns you with the lines “don’t be trifling.” Sherlock disagrees, and, well, his reputation should be the only convincing you need.
3. Work Hard and Believe in Your Dreams: Jay Gatsby
“Gatsy believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning” -Nick Carroway on Jay Gatsby
Perhaps in many ways, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby was a tragic soul, and many detest his desire for wealth and his delusional nature that he could recapture his past through the glittering lure of luxury and falsity.
However, to me, he was a hero in many ways, an example of a man with a dream who refused to let the world put his goals to bed.
Character Nick Carroway comments on the beauty of this trait in Gatsy when he states that “there was something gorgeous about [Gastsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He later expounds on his gift as “an extraordinary gift for hope.”
This hope and relentless belief in the power of our dreams is what we can take from Gatsby’s story. Even as a boy, Gatsby knew hard work and diligence would be the key to his success. In the following passage, one of Gatsby's friends shows Carraway a book Gatsby kept as a boy. This book reveals the beliefs of a man who knew hard work and persistence are the only ways to better one’s life and make one’s dreams a reality.
This portion of the book reveals Jay Gatsby's childhood schedule. Even then, he placed his faith in the fact that discipline equals success.
He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see. On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE and the date September 12, 1906. And underneath:
Rise from bed 6.00 A.M.
Dumbell exercise and wall scaling 6.15–6.30
Study electricity, etc. 7.15–8.15
Work 8.30–4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports 4.30–5.00
Practice elocution, poise and how to obtain it 5.00–6.00
Study needed inventions 7.00–9.00
Underneath his daily schedule was a list of resolves that included things such as “no wasting time” and “[reading] one improving book or magazine a week.”
As writers, we face seemingly impossible odds. There are millions of others like us, hoping their words will reach thousands, hoping that one day they may claim the title of a master writer or see their name on the bestseller list.
We should strive to live like Gatsby, working hard and never doubting the power of an individual to master his circumstances. We must, like Gatsby, “[believe] in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning — — “
Well, one fine morning — who knows? We might just find our dreams are no longer dreams. They are, in fact, reality.