The Wisdom of James Herriot

I don’t know how much of what I’ve written this week I’ll end up keeping vs. cutting. I finished a chapter tonight which may well be completely replaced. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because 1. I enjoyed writing it, and 2. it gave one of my characters room to open up on the page–not that I didn’t already know certain things about him, but just like with real people, it’s one thing to know a character, and another thing to really empathize with them, to feel what it’s like inside their head. Whether the scene is integral enough to the plot of the novel or not to keep it remains to be seen, along with whether or not it’s anything a reader would care to sit through when there are much more adventurous moments to be had in the book. In a first draft, you can’t worry about that kind of stuff, or you’ll never finish. Be generous with your first draft and ruthless with your second, I always say. Or, in other words, write the first draft as a writer and the second as an editor.

Image result for james herriot

Alfred Wight, a.k.a. James Herriot with doggie. Image cribbed from James Herriot Twitter account.

And speaking of writing, I just finished re-watching the excellent BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the autobiographical books of a Yorkshire veterinarian. The books were written under the pseudonym of James Herriot, real name Alfred Wight. I grew up on his books, which both my mother and my grandmother read to me as a child, and on the BBC television series which aired on PBS when I was little. The time period is the 1930s-50s, the setting rural Yorkshire, the style funny and touching by turns, and the characters (both human and animal) portrayed with a beautiful balance between honesty and compassion in the narrative. Herriot’s (or rather, Wight’s) stories are as ingrained in me as if they were the mythos of my personal culture. So when I finished the series and sat down to check out the special features, I was thrilled to come across a 1970s interview with the author.

There were several things in the interview that particularly struck me. First, Wight spent twenty years saying he was going to write a book before, at age 50, he ever attempted the task. He described his struggles with learning to write from the heart, rather than trying to write “well,” with finding his own voice in the shadow of the literary classics he loved. And then his struggles with rejection letters and the inevitable depression that accompanies their repetition, disasters like having an editor who liked his work but asked him for rewrites leave for another company by the time he did the rewrites, and a host of other obstacles. And yet, he ended up with one bestseller after another, translations into languages for readers all over the world, and a TV series on the BBC.

Second, I was struck by the accuracy of his portrayal of himself and his wife, and their relationship, based on the books in comparison to things he said in the interview. It can’t possibly be easy to portray anything that close to home without skewing it. And I’m sure there’s some of that, but it made me smile to see him act so much like the James Herriot I knew from his books.

Third, the interviewer asked several times, in different wording each time, why a multi-national bestselling author was, at that time, still working full time as a country vet. Wight’s answer: He loved being a vet, his love of being a vet is what he writes about, and he felt it was important to balance his writing life with the activity his career provided him with. All of which just makes me love his books more, because of the depth of his feeling for his work with animals–and the people who care for them. But that third component, balancing creativity with daily life, struck me in particular. It’s something all but the most successful writer struggles with: balancing a day job with writing. And yet, here’s an author who could easily have lived on his sales, who felt that without his day job (if you can call a job where you’re on call 24/7 a “day job”), he wouldn’t have been as productive as a writer. Granted, he wrote about what he did for a living. But still, it’s a point to ponder. We tell ourselves we need time to write, but is it time we need, or is it motivation, self-discipline, and drive?

For my own part, if I’m honest, it’s the latter. Thank you for the reminder, “Mr. Herriot”!

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