Monday, November 14, 2011

Iron vs Ivory

Lemony Snicket, tracking down the Baudelaires

I love Lemony Snicket.

No, really - I do. I am of the firm opinion that his Series of Unfortunate Events is really adult therapy masquerading as children's cautionary tales, a big ol' slice of wisdom posing as sound and fury. I love the dark yet heartfelt irony with which he infuses his observations on life, and how he makes me laugh even during the darkest moments of his tales. Anyone who rejects the books on the grounds of them being "too depressing" obviously hasn't caught the full breadth of the series.

In a few of his books, he makes some lovely backhanded comments about authors and their tendency to stay holed up in ivory towers. I always laugh when I come to these references, because he's snarking at his own profession when he says such things. But in an offbeat way, he is very much spot on.

An ivory tower....or something like it.

An "ivory tower", of course, is figurative language for the personal happy space of someone so wrapped up in ideas that they can't be bothered to spend much time - if any - among mere mortals. Look through history - or even a random shelf of books in your own house - and you can probably turn up a whole list of authors who have done just that: - stayed in their own little cloister, writing their masterpiece, while Real Life slides past them. Some of these writers made their separation from the mundane everyday a point of pride (such as Marcel Proust). Others wrote while in forced isolation (John Bunyan and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both wrote their master works in prison), and still others were so fearful of criticism (Harper Lee) or blatantly defiant of public opinion (J D Salinger) that they withdrew behind a self-imposed veil from which they have yet to emerge.

Interestingly, both Lee's and Salinger's prize winning novels - both published to great acclaim by the early sixties - are their only novels to date. Both of them are still alive, though elderly, and with no hint of a second novel forthcoming, unless it be posthumously.

But therein lies the problem with the Ivory Tower Syndrome. Even if you are a literary genius and can imitate  real life in a prose that blows your readers away, it's not likely to happen again if you live by the standard of shunning almost all but the most immediate company. (Perhaps it is unfair to lump Lee into that category; though Salinger certainly does belong.)

Ivory Towers mean isolation. It removes you from all the nonsense, but it also cuts you off from your best source of writing inspiration - the muddled, complicated, drama-trauma of every day life with real, living, irritating, spontaneous people.

Iron spears, best sharpened against each other.

Perhaps the better pattern for an aspiring writer - or even a published one - is to take a verse or two from Proverbs to heart and accept that a friendship of  "iron sharpening iron" is far better, certainly if you wish to write in such a way that deeply stirs your readers - connects with them - allows them to live through layers of life, and all through the words you've presented on the page.

It's the other side of great noveling, belonging to those writers who wrote alongside other writers. They formed literary groups - usually very small, within the key range of five to seven people - and met to discuss, share, talk, critique and exhort one another to new levels of masterful writing. Giants in this arena would be The Bloomsbury Group (which included E M Forester and John Maynard Keynes*), and The Inklings (which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis). In both cases people of similar but not identical passions came together and talked through their ideas, both literary and otherwise, and drew from that collective energy when drafting their next work. Perhaps they could have written in isolation, and it might have even been masterful writing; but they preferred to work with accountability - and it shows in the content and tone of their work.

(*Obvious note: Keynes was not a novelist; but I also doubt that he would have produced such in depth economic theories while cloistered in Proust's cork-lined soundproofed room.)

Of course, some of you are reading this and thinking of all sorts of exceptions to both sides of the argument.

And, whatever your argument --- you're right.

I know you're right even without asking you, because writing - and how we approach it - is really as varied as the individual. No two writers carve up the proverbial elephant the same way. We can cloister ourselves and write about our idea of life; or we can write shoulder-to-shoulder with kindred spirits within the everyday. But we can also work on our project within any one of countless variations between those two extremes.

Personally I think the Inklings and the Bloomsburians got it right. We ought to work within sight of each other at least, and with people who will hold us accountable to being readable, reachable and relevant. I've done it both ways, and can honestly say that writing in staunch isolation - always separated from all accountability - just does NOT work for me. I would encourage anyone who writes to find a likeminded group of tale-spinners and meet at least once a quarter, to sharpen iron against and iron, and see what comes of the collaboration. The results may well surprise you.

Or it might not. It might actually be the very thing you've been looking for all along.

What do you think?


  1. So... yeah. I definitely think I tend to be an ivory-tower kind of person. :)

  2. I gave a box set of Lemony Snicket as a gift years ago -- I don't think the person I gave them to ever read them. I should have hung on to them. :)

    I tend to write in isolation and not talk about my work a lot, but I'm considering changing that. My biggest hurdle is my assumption that no one would be interested.

  3. I think everyone is a little of both, to be honest; but that fear of criticism can be paralyzing. At the moment I'm not too worried about the criticism....we'll see what life looks like in January, when I run the next gauntlet of beta readers. o_O

  4. P.S. Daniel --- so nice to find another Lemony Snicket reader. I have all the books here at the house and have no intention of ever giving them up. :)

  5. On the off chance you haven't read Lemony Snicket's Nanowrimo pep talk from a couple years back... it's gold.