I often tell my students that the reverse of the advice I give them would probably work as well. “Great writing lies in the detail,” I tell them. Look at James Joyce and study the detail in his work, the use of precise names and places. But I also tell them generalities can work wonderfully well. Look at the fairy story, for example, with its unnamed place and time. “Once upon a time, in a far away kingdom,” it begins so intriguingly.
This is probably often the case in life too. So much of the advice we receive on what to eat, how to exercise, how to love, and how to work is contradictory or anyway confusing. Every new study brings startling revelations about what is good for us and what is not. So should we listen to any of it?
Certainly, looking back I have received advice that has been extremely helpful to me. When an editor at Knopf read my first novel, The Perfect Place, he told me it was sentimental, that a victim did not work well on the page.
I had written a book in a rage after my sister’s death, convinced her husband, a wife batterer, had killed her. I wrote as a witness to what I considered a crime. “Poor me!” I wailed through many pages. “Look what this bad man has done!” In other words I was bent on revenge.
The editor said I needed a narrator who was complicit in the crime. He told me to do what I did well: description, that my narrator should look and not feel. So, swallowing my pride, gritting my teeth, I conjured up my ex mother-in-law, someone I considered entirely different from me, a snobbish woman who cared, it seemed to me, mainly about appearances, wealth, and status, but someone who was also intelligent, elegant, most amusing, and who dared to say what many of us feel. Writing from her point of view and believing it had little to do with me I was able to express freely certain dark truths I had only dreamed of before.
In my desire to publish the book I managed to write from the point of view of someone I was in conflict with, which forced me to take a distance from this red-hot material that I had been unable to hold.
In the novel a woman is accosted by a stranger in Switzerland and gradually recovers memories of her friend’s murder in which she has been complicit. In other words I was obliged to reverse everything I had wanted to write and write against the grain. It took me years and several novels and essays to try and approach the subject more directly.
If we are willing to listen and sincerely desire to change, to grow we can accomplish something we may not believe was possible. If we are lucky enough to find an expert in the field, someone who will give us timely and precise advice with our good and not his own at heart it can be very useful I have found.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.