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.

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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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Back When I Could Draw….

Once upon a time, around 1999-2003 or so, I used to be able to draw. I’m out of the habit now, although I still occasionally do an art project. But I’m scanning in some of my old drawings so I’ll have digital copies of them, which is a bit of a trip down memory lane. The two drawings included in this post were done toward the beginning (the tree frog) and end (the hawk) of my first semester of art class at Corydon High School, back in 1999. I have many good memories of learning to shade without scribbling in that class, most of them with a soundtrack of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with many good conversations with my friends and with our awesome art teacher.

Something I learned in that class about drawing, I’ve also learned to apply to my writing: if you try to put a drawing together by drawing and shading each part perfectly, you’ll end up with a distorted (if well-shaded) image, essentially impossible to fix (short of erasing the whole thing and starting over). The same applies to writing a book – at least, in my experience. If you painstakingly perfect every scene as you go, you might end up with beautiful sentences or passages, but the pacing is terrible and the plot is too thin in places and too overdone in others. And you can’t just pull it apart and stick it back together so easily, because moving those lovely sentences into a different context usually takes all the power out of them. Having learned this the hard way, I compare my writing strategy these days to the process of drawing:

002 First, you sketch the outline. The outline is rough, vague, and leaves out the details and the shapes the shading is going to fill in. Then you write your rough draft, which is like the first pass at shading a drawing – get your contrast set up where you need it by filling in your darkest darks and marking off where your lightest lights will be, making sure all your proportions (pacing) are right. The second draft is blending – smooth it out, shade in your grey areas, and get rid of the pencil marks left over from your sketch. And in your third draft, you perfect your details, clean up, and bring out anything that needs sharper focus or more definition.

So that is how my art teacher from 16 years ago taught me both how to draw and how to write novels. Further proof, as if we needed it, that one kind of creativity informs another.

A Chinchilla’s Life – By Dasha

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Toys are no substitute for hours and hours of your attention while I run around and do Olympian gymnastics, human.

Dasha’s Journal, First Entry:

I have managed to take over the small human’s laptop.  This is my first opportunity to communicate with the humans in a way they might (I hope) comprehend.  Humans, if you understand this entry, please take note:  My playtime yesterday was woefully insufficient.  Since you don’t seem to respond to my obvious behavioral communications of ignoring you, gruffing when you try to pet me, and staring pitifully out of the bars of my cage, I feel I need to make this point more clearly.  No, the toys and wheel in my cage are not a consolation.

To the small human:  I do not understand why you make high-pitched noises every time I bark to tell you and the big human to be quiet while I’m trying to rest.  I wish I could figure out the strange noises you and the big human make, because most of the time it sounds like gibberish.  The noise you address me with most often sounds like Noe, and seems to be your attempt to request that I ignore my instinct to chew on everything in sight.  I try to be polite and only chew when you aren’t looking, but you still make loud noises when you look in my direction afterward.  I feel that giving me a treat would be a more appropriate response.

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Of course I have plenty of my own things to chew on! But if I am kind enough to make sure your things are chewed on, too, you should thank me, not scold me.

Thank you for turning off your swing jazz music long enough for me to hear some AC/DC the other day – I hope you could tell by my intense expressions of acrobatic appreciation how pleased I was, particularly once the volume was up loud enough for my liking.  Bon Scott’s voice is a joy to hear, and I am sad to learn (through the boxes on your laptop, small human), that he is no more.

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I’ll just mourn Bon Scott by chewing on something for a while…life does go on… *sigh*

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Cage bars block the proper grooming of the scritchy-spot. For best results, give me an opportunity to escape and run around chewing on things!

To the big human:  The chin-scratch, as practiced by the small human, can only be accomplished with the appropriate cage door open.  Through the bars, you can’t possibly reach the scritchy-spot properly.  Also, you haven’t been producing enough music with that thing that makes the sounds of absolute joy and wonder whenever you’re chewing on it…I think I have heard the small human refer to it with the noises Harm-on-a-cow, which makes no sense because there are no cows harmed in the making of that beautiful music.  I like the music you’ve been playing on the Get-her, however.

The small human makes loud sounds at me if she sees me sitting on the laptop, and she may not understand what I’m doing if she finds me here.  So this is Dasha, signing off.