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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Guest Post at SRAS’ Art in Russia Website

My final article for SRAS’ Summer 2013 program is posted!  You can read it here:

Program Review: Art and Museums in Russia

I’m very excited about everything I learned while I was there, and excited to carry these experiences and this inspiration forward – in my academics, my creative life, and my personal life.  It’s been an amazing summer, and I’ve still got a month to do more awesome stuff with myself before I stuff my brain full of more awesomeness this school year!  Woot!

When I Go to Russia….

For half my life now, I’ve wanted to go to Russia.  In less than a month, I’ll be heading to St. Petersburg for a four-week program on museum studies and the history of Russian art.  The first question most people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Russian is, “Why Russian?”  I find this question incredibly irritating (I’ve never heard anybody question why any other language) but that’s a rant I don’t need to get into here and now….

Anyway, the answer is, because I love Russian literature.  It’s what got me started being interested in Russia, starting with Dostoevsky and expanding to Lermentov, Bulgakov, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev.  No, I’ve never managed to really get into Tolstoy, in case you’re wondering.  And though Dostoevsky and I disagree on some major philosophical points, he remains one of my all-time favorite authors.  His ability to make thoroughly despicable people into heartbreakingly sympathetic characters and his intense portrayal of the fragility, beauty, and horror of the human psyche at the height of his literary career is impressive in itself, but his growth and change as an author is possibly even more admirable.  In his early works, he writes like an awkward, dreamy young man (not unlike many of his early narrators).  After his arrest, mock-execution, and exile, his writing flourishes – all his early skill with writing beautifully-crafted words from the heart bursts out of his dream-state youth into full awareness of the realities around him, and his full strength as a writer, as a social commentator, as an observer of human behavior, finally came through.

As a writer, I find the intensity of his development inspiring.  I can’t say that I ever want to experience a last-minute pardon from execution or a decade’s imprisonment in Siberia, but I can say that I hope that any difficult, frightening, awful times in my own life (because, let’s face it, everybody experiences some hard times) will push my writing to new levels, open me up to new and profound possibilities, and strengthen my creativity into something with real power behind it.  A good writer is a nice thing to be, but to be a great writer takes not just ability, but growth.

The Dostoevsky Museum isn’t on my program’s list of sites, but I’ll definitely go on my own to see it, and his grave site nearby.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that visit when the time comes!