What’s an old lady worth?

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. ~ William Faulkner

One of my instructors, citing William Faulkner’s statement that good writers are ruthless about their art, asked the class whether there were any subjects we could not write about.

William Faulkner
Image via Wikipedia

One of the students came up with an extensive, and very funny, list of things she couldn’t write about.

But for anyone aspiring to publish, it’s a serious question.

In her memoir, Limbo, A. Manette Ansay writes that to tell her story, she had to tell a story about her father as well. It was a memory so painful  that he disclosed it to her only when she was experiencing a deep personal crisis and he believed hearing it might lessen her pain. If he hadn’t given permission to tell his secret, she would not have written her memoir. Her father was more important than her art.

Against all the rules, I’ll digress to say that Limbo is a wonderful book, and everyone reading this post should run to wherever you go and borrow or buy one. I borrowed the book from my library, when I had one, and received no perks for stating this opinion. I say this in a spirit of full disclosure and a certain amount of pique that I have to say it at all. (Actually, since this isn’t a review, I probably don’t have to say it, but I’ve always wanted to use the word pique, and this way I have an excuse to do so.)

Back to the original topic. Because so much of my so-called inspiration comes from people I’ve known or heard about, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what I can’t write about. Is there anything in my life or that of my family that would be best left alone? Is there anything I cannot use as fodder? Anything really really good that, if I were lucky enough to get it into print, might be considered indiscreet? I can use my grandfather’s roll-your-own Bull Durhams and my Cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg, but is there anything that simply must not find its way into the bookstores?

General Robert E. Lee mounted on Traveller, hi...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m talking about family here.

Of course there are things I can’t write about.

In my case, family includes a whole raft of people I’m not related to, I hardly know, or I’ve merely heard about from other people. For example, my grandfather once knew a man who, as a boy, saw General Robert E. Lee sitting astride Traveler.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about a boy seeing Traveler (who both my grandfather and I knew was much more important than General Lee), but, for the purposes of my art, I consider that boy part of the family. It’s complicated.

Anyway, back to the question, What can’t I write about?

Like many other answers, it depends. Fiction allows–requires–the writer to stretch the facts to get to the truth. Characters aren’t people. Plot isn’t memoir. With that kind of leeway, the possibilities are endless.

And let’s face facts. I am neither a William Faulkner nor an A. Manette Ansay, and I’m in no danger of producing anything that will cause readers to confuse me with Keats. Or even with Janet Evanovich, more’s the pity.

Still, if I were forced to give a straight answer to the question, I would agree with Ms. Ansay.

Whenever I read Faulkner’s declaration, I think of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Keats took comfort from the urn. I take comfort from the poem. “When old age shall this generation waste,” those things of beauty will continue to delight. It’s difficult to put a price on that.

But then I think of all the old ladies I’ve known.

From what I’ve read about him, I believe even Keats would consider them worth more than an ode.

Is there anything you can’t write about?


Another disclosure: Zemanta didn’t help me write this post, but it did provide the pictures and the link below, which accesses an audio archive of William Faulkner’s lectures and speeches. According to the accompanying article, the author was “quite the wit” and would “routinely slay audiences.” I’d planned to say I felt guilty for using Zemanta, but I’m so pleased at getting to hear Faulkner speak that I’m going to allow Z to assist me as often as it wishes.

Image of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten,  Library of CongressPrints and Photographs DivisionVan Vechten Collection, reproduction number {{{2}}}

Image of Gen. Robert E. Lee, September 1866, author unknown; [Public Domain]; file has been extracted from an original image in The New Student’s Reference Work:Image:LA2-NSRW-3-0037.jpg.

Image of Grecian Urn by John Keats (1795-1821) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/litmuse/64111434/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

10 thoughts on “What’s an old lady worth?

  1. Yes..there are things one can’t write about. They usually happen to be on two ends of your mind spectrum- on the one side things you are only faintly familiar with, or things that don’t pique your interest. On the other extreme of the spectrum some people find it difficult to write about extremely painful or intimate memories. There’s the conventional wisdom that writing helps release the pain- that it acts as catharsis. But I feel it equally likely, the more you write about something, the more it gets reinforced, the more you become mired in misery.


    1. “But I feel it equally likely, the more you write about something, the more it gets reinforced, the more you become mired in misery.” I agree completely. I’ve never heard anyone else express that thought, however. I’ve heard people say that when they continued to write, they finally found themselves writing toward solutions and a more positive state of mind. Much depends on the individual, I think. Some can do it. Some need guidance to help them keep from generating more of the same.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you visited.


  2. Great blog!

    Many writers turn to fiction because they are reluctant to write anything too revealing about the people in their lives. No one wants to be accused of slander and not many people are willing to alienate their loved ones or enrage their enemies, all of which is possible when writing about those people in our lives. Fictional characters allow for the creation of composite characters whose traits are based on real-life people in our lives but are nonetheless fictional and largely unrecognizable. (Funny, people rarely recognize themselves when fictionalized in a story). Unfortunate for me, I don’t have much of a knack for fiction. Instead, I write poetry based on my life experiences, which I hope will be perceived as more than just clever arrangements of words, and an occassional non-fiction peice observing things rather than people.


    1. You’re fortunate to have a talent for poetry. I’m trying to find out whether I have a knack for fiction. Might not, but I enjoy writing while I find out.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting. I hope you’ll come again. I’d like to meander through your blog, if you’ve no objection. “The Earthquake Affair” was wonderful.


  3. I’ve been thinking lately about how to write about the “unmentionables”–both the people and the events. I think there are some things left better unsaid, but for the most part, I want to find a way to tell my story. As always, you inspire me and make me smile.


    1. Your story belongs to you, and it’s important that you tell it. Keep writing.

      If I were going to amend my post, I’d probably say that it’s the word “ruthless” that stands out for me in Faulkner’s statement. Not every person or event should be hidden or shielded. They have the right to tell their stories. The rest of us have the right to tell ours.

      Have you read Nancy Peacock’s memoir A Broom of One’s Own? For years she wrote novels in the morning and worked as a house cleaner in the afternoons. In an appendix, she offers her rules for writing memoir. Interesting book, entertaining, and you get the sense that she is a highly ethical person in both life and writing.

      You might like Limbo as well. It’s in some ways a dark book, but the author’s integrity and spirit shine through. And she’s in good health now. That knowledge makes for happier reading. The passage in which her father shares his secret with her is really beautiful.

      Thank you for your words. The inspiration and the smile–that’s a two-way street, you know.

      PS Hurry up and write. I want to read it.


  4. What a fabulous blog,Kathy, and very thought provoking for me, as I’m sure you can imagine.

    My background is journalism. Where ethics come top and bottom of the list. For a long time, what I chose to write was what I could prove in a court of law.

    Even then, one occasionally had to be courageous and write despite a subjects protests. The test became, could I prove it and was it in the public interest.

    Now I write for different reasons : mainly for love of story, winding tale-telling that weaves a web that describes a life and a singular culture.

    I find I have become a propagandist.

    Since those I write about have become my readers, the story must, imperatively, entertain them. And anything which would hurt or unsettle them does not serve my purpose.

    But ruthless? Yes, I’m afraid. Just as much as I ever was.


    1. I have great respect for journalists. I was a senior in college during the Senate Watergate Committee investigation and the subsequent impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. I watched nearly every minute of television coverage of the hearings, right up until the president’s resignation. None of the illegal activities would have come to light without two newspaper reporters, an editor, and a publisher who were both ethical and courageous. But as much as I admire the profession, I couldn’t join it. I’m afraid I would ride a pendulum between ruthlessness and timidity. At the last minute, I’d second-guess myself and my sources and would then stay awake nights mentally indexing everything I knew about the libel laws. I am, frankly, chicken.

      It’s like when I was a librarian. I longed to defend my patrons’ First Amendment freedom of the press and the American Library Association’s freedom to read statement. Every time it looked as if an opportunity would arise, however, I wanted to hop the first bus for Argentina. Fortunately, my library never received a formal complaint, so I didn’t have to run.


      1. Oooh, someone who was there when Woodward and Bernstein were turning water into wine…. I’m envious, such an exciting time for pursuit of The Truth. But that really was scarey stuff. Not sure I would put my life on the line to write what needed to be written.

        Maybe its time for some Solzhenitsyn….


        1. If I’d really understood the full potential for disaster (military takeover? civil war? international intervention?) I’d have been scared to death myself. But the Senate hearings were high drama, even the boring parts. I’d like to watch them again.

          However–meet a anonymous informant in an empty parking garage in the middle of the night? No way.

          The Woodward/Bernstein papers are archived at the Harry Ransom Center, near where I live. Were it not for inertia, I’d go visit them.


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