The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.
Ok, the title is a little harsh. The reason for it is I’ve been pondering Harriet Beecher Stowe for the last couple of days whom I consider one of the most talented authors of the last three centuries. Every year I go back and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a couple of reasons; the first is to keep myself aware of the horrific things we did and still do to our fellow humans and the second reason is to bask in the amazing talent that was Beecher Stowe. In my humble opinion, you just don’t get that kind of talent anymore. Well, we do its just very different.
With Harriet Beecher Stowe, we have a privileged white woman who so effectively slips on the personage of black slaves that readers feel as if they are seeing the plights of the black slave in the 1800’s directly through their eyes. As if it is an autobiography rather than a well-researched and beautifully written piece of fiction. Her depiction of Uncle Tom’s life is so timeless and powerful that it grabs you by your core and whips you around like a soiled rag whose centrifugal force strips away the dirt of our self-absorption and ends up clean, white, pure and raw and imprinted with new awareness. It is powerful stuff – and, it’s beautiful.
So, how the hell did she do it? I can’t do it and neither can most of the authors in the 21st century. Sure, there’s some real good shit out there, but it ain’t Harriet Beecher Stowe good.
The only thing I can figure is this; Stowe had less distractions and thus more time to hone her talent. Just like reading has been given the shaft for interactive technologically rich activities – so has writing. A couple of years ago I was talking to an editor of a large magazine over martinis at my local gin joint. I told her that at this ripe old age I was going to try and make it as a writer. Her suggestion was not to think about just the book, but all the multi-media that goes along with it. I tried that – you know what happens? You write crap.
Distractions are killer. It’s not that we’re not as talented as Hattie, we’re just not as focused. There’s too much going on in our little worlds. The iPhone is pinging, we’re instant messaging on Facebook or G-chat, oh…and we must pin those drapes on Pinterest. (I just posted an im on FB arguing politics with my cousin – yep, just now) The dogs need assistance, the kids need assistance, we have to eat, there’s the daily donation to Starbucks, etc. Hattie had the luxury of having large blocks of time where, really – there probably wasn’t anything else to do.
I realize I’m oversimplifying here, and really should just relate this post to myself, because except for the Pinterest and Starbucks reference, I’m guilty of being a slave to all of those distractions and I know it hurts my writing. It certainly can’t just be me, though. I imagine many a decent novel has gone from the next Great American novel to “meh” due to the siren song of our devices.
I could go on and on and mentally masturbate this topic to death, but this is a short post since I really have to get back to Facebook, and it is only meant to provoke some thought. I’d really like to hear what other writers think, so please go ahead and comment.
I’m sure she had plenty of distraction in her time. But, what she had that most writers lack is the ability to write from her heart about something she was passionate about. Now there’s a word… passionate. Whenever I write from MY heart I am happy with what I produce (even if others aren’t). When I write to ‘appeal’ to others, my works dies on the page. Writing today is so commercially driven that it can kill whatever bit of passion left. When was the last time you (or anyone) wrote something you really believed in and didn’t give a damn what others thought? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
I think you’re onto something. I read a couple years ago that Ernest Hemingway (I think) thought he wrote really lousy letters because he always wrote them after he was done with his other writing so he was tired when he wrote his letters, and he didn’t put his best effort into them (bad paraphrase on my part). That may be what is happening with us and social media (just like you said). To combat this, we should write the important stuff first, and then do the social media when we have nothing left (or something like that). I hope that made sense.
I completely agree.
And, if you write for money and need to either hit a deadline, or specific goal – your natural inclination is to do that writing first. Which is why those great novels never get written.