Writing Life

Writers are a conservative lot, in many respects.  Consider the epigraph.  I’ve written about this before—in modern-day publishing epigraphs require permission to reuse and serve little purpose beyond two negotiable factors: to prove the writer is well-read, and that someone else just summed up your chapter in a single sentence.  Most modern books have stopped using epigraphs, but scholars read old books produced before aggressive copyright laws.  There is a trick you can use, however, that brings an epigraph into the realm of the fair use doctrine.  It involves moving it into the body of your chapter.  Make it a quote.  Comment upon it.  For all their research skills, many academics do not take advantage of easily found advice on academic publishing.  Just ask an editor.

We all, I’m sure, have tunnel-vision.  Life is so incredibly busy and demanding that choices have to be made.  For most academics publishing is part of the rubric for tenure.  Perishing is the only other option.  Been there.  Done that.  Those of us who make a more modest living on the other side of the book sometimes write for different reasons.  We may need to supplement our income (as if academic publishing really ever helps with that!), and thus we must pay attention to the finer details of the business.  Write what people want to read.  Think like a reader.  And, yes, get rid of the epigraphs.  We know you’re smart; you’ve written a book.  Another reason for writing beyond the tenure-dome is the compulsion.  The need to do it.

While the struggling artist is a tired trope, it’s also true.  Many of the writers most admired today had lifetimes of struggle and obstacles which often stopped them too soon in life’s tracks.  I often think of the Brontë sisters.  In a family apparently cursed with premature death, living in a time when women writers were rare, three sisters set themselves the task of becoming novelists.  Not one of them lived to forty.  Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, made it to twenty-nine.  Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, died at thirty.  Charlotte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, survived to thirty-nine.  They defined, in many ways, the English novel.  And while they lived to see some measure of success in their brief lives, they wrote against the obstacles of life and the specter of early death.  Writing is a passion.  A craft.  And even academic authors provide a favor to the world if they do it well.

Brontë sisters by brother Branwell

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Be It Resolved

I’m not a believer in New Years Resolutions.  A constant and critical self-monitor, when I notice a bad behavior I try to correct it right away.  Sometimes I’m actually successful.  Now that I’ve finally removed all books from the garage—some were being held high above the water-line on plastic boxes—I’ve started to sort through systematically what is beyond redemption.  A comment of occasional visitors, however, has goaded me into a resolution; you see, people sometimes ask “Are you going to read those again?”  While aching to address the mindset betrayed by that very question, I cede a point; if I’m going to the expense of replacing a non-reference book, I should want to read it again.  My resolution—when I buy another copy, I will read it then and there.

One of the stinging parts of this resolution is that some of the books were read by me just this past year, or even earlier this year.  Jude the Obscure, although I enjoyed it, cost me a quarter year of my life of evening reading time.  On that basis alone I should replace it, but if I’m not going to reread it why should I incur the expense?  (Moving is anything but cheap.)   I will also face rereading old favorites that have been put aside for a while.  No house, for example, should be without Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, although I read it again just months back, or so it feels.  

This is perhaps a way of making lemonade from a cloud.  Or finding the silver lining on a lemon.  Whichever it is, I sense that it will figure toward my reading goal for next year.  As I’ve spent the rainy weekend unpacking books, literacy is on my mind.  For those who see my literomania as some kind of disease, I was cheered to note just how many of the books on display I had indeed read.  The same goes true for a number of the academic books in the study, but, I must confess, while pulling them from their boxes I thought how boring most of them are.  Boring, however, doesn’t equate to useless when it comes to books.  Given their price points some of them may take years to replace.  That’s the point of a resolution, in any case.  It can cause some pain.  As I stuff the moldy, distorted tomes into their body-bags I hope that rereading their replacements will bring them back to life.  After all, resolution and resurrection are not so far apart.