Monday, August 18, 2014

When Nothing Is Lost, Novel Writing and Henry James

If you’re looking to enhance your storytelling, consider this advice from novel writer and essayist Henry James: Be a writer on whom nothing is lost.

James’s style in Washington Square (1880) reveals characters and story more by telling about them than showing them in scene and dialogue. Yet, the author clearly knows the people, setting and era, and knows how to present them in a way that has broader thematic appeal.

In the craft essay "The Art of Fiction," James advises, "Write from experience, and experience only …” He then adds, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" However, there are two important caveats: It’s better to write from experience than with it (think fiction versus reportage), and if a writer is to be someone on whom nothing is lost, he or she must have first closely observed the world in order to gain that experience, and must have analyzed with some accuracy the experience gained.

The triad of experience, observation and analysis is similar to Bob Dylan’s description of the creative process as involving observation, imagination and experience. If we merge Dylan’s insights with James’s, we have the following:
  • Mine your past experiences, and look for new encounters.
  • Don’t just see what you’re looking at; observe it.
  • Analyze what you observe, and consider how it applies to the world at large.
  • Write from your experience not with it by letting your imagination create the fiction. Washington Square is based on the true story of a jilted heiress whom James heard about through a friend.
For more on Henry James and his work, visit PBS. Also see Henry James’s "The Art of Fiction" at Washington State University.

What story are you writing that could benefit from the wealth of your experience, observations, analysis and imagination?

Happy writing!

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