Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reclaiming the Title of Writer; or, Charlotte Brontë Writing About the Moon

In the course of my reading of Villette last night before bed, I came across this beautiful passage:

“See yonder!  The moon rises: she looks well through the tree boles.”

Where, indeed, does the moon not look well?  What is the scene, confined or expansive, which her orb does not hallow?  Rosy or fiery, she mounted now above a not distant bank; even while we watched her flushed ascent, she cleared to gold, and in a very brief space, floated up stainless into a now calm sky.

I found this an example of truly gorgeous writing, and it stood out to me especially because this moment was an aside: not essential to the plot, this passage was merely an example of Brontë musing through her character Lucy.  If I were trying to write a novel, and came to a point to write about the moon, I might have written something succinct, effective, but inelegant like this:

The moon rose over the horizon.

Or I might have added lots of adjectives and adverbs to try to spice things up.  Purple prose for the win:

The silvery moon rose slowly but surely over the darkened horizon, cautious yet secure in the conclusion of its nightly journey, shedding light to the world as it gazed upon it.

Ugh.  I don’t even like that, and I wrote it!  Fiction-writing is not my strength, and that’s why I admire authors like Charlotte Brontë so much.  The really great authors accomplish plot and prose alike with beauty and poise.

All of this brings me to my main point: I’m still a writer.

At the New Year’s Eve party I attended, I was mistakenly introduced to a woman who writes fiction professionally as both an avid reader and writer – “she has a great book blog, and [turning to me] don’t you write as well…?”  My first instinct was to demur.  No, I’m not that sort of writer.  “Writer,” in our culture, and especially in casual meetings like this, at parties over cups of some sort of fruity pink punch with champagne in it, means something exciting and accessible and reassuringly easy to talk about.  I'm not one of those fiction writers.

But after a quick refusal of the title, I took it back.  “I do write, just not fiction.  I keep a book blog, and I write academic prose.”  This past semester alone, I turned in something like seventy-seven pages of academic writing, and two of those papers have the potential to be revised and expanded into real scholarship (one already is being reworked; I’ll be presenting the beginnings of my English Reformation research at a conference in a month and a half).  I fully intend to publish articles in the next few years and, within the next ten years, my first book.

Why isn’t it as easy to assume “writer” as one of my identity markers as it is to take on “musicologist,” “singer,” “reader,” “Anglican,” “wife”?  I don’t write fiction; I had a very short-lived (three days’) attempt to participate in last year’s National Novel Writing Month.  But I am a writer, as are all of my academic colleagues, and as are all of my fellow book bloggers.  We write on a regular basis: we take time to hone our craft.  We try to stay interesting to our readers: we are concerned with mechanics, style, and content.  Our goal is always better communication: isn’t that what being a writer is all about?


  1. I'm glad you like Villette as well. Charlotte Bronte is one of those novelists who make novel-writing actually "literary", that is the words themselves sound nice. Not surprising, as she once wanted to be a poet. Villette is an underrated book, many of its passages are more meaningful than Jane Eyre. Have you tried Shirley? I think your blog makes you far more a writer than the authors of Clandestine Classics.

    1. I haven't tried Shirley yet, but I intend to read either it or The Professor (whichever I find in the matching Penguin edition at a used bookstore) next winter break. I think Charlotte Bronte's prose is stunning, and well worth the extra time it takes to read compared to an author whose writing is easy for readers to speed through.

      Also, thank you for the compliment! I have to confess I'm not familiar with Clandestine Classics, but it's nice to consider my blog as another form of writing practice beyond all of the the academic papers.