How To Fail at Writing: A Lesson from Mary Wollstonecraft

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Nearly everyone has heard of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s great work of Gothic literature. But how many of you have heard of Mary Shelley’s mother? Mary Wollstonecraft’s greatest work was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and is still the best treatise on what feminism is and should be worldwide. She had a knack for articulating the practicalities behind the feminist movement. Practicalities which would appeal to any 21st century person however conservative or progressive their leanings. Today, however, we are going to look at her failed attempt at the Gothic form—Maria or The Wrongs of Woman. 

Wollstonecraft herself detested novel-reading, particularly the flippant Gothic type which, to her mind, did nothing to improve the mind and did everything to distract. Her opinion didn’t get very far—particularly when writers such as Jane Austen proved beyond the shadow of a doubt the novel was here to stay and that it could instruct as well as entertain. Even more so that Wollstonecraft’s own daughter went on to write several novels of her own, Frankenstein possibly being one of the most widely read, known, and adapted work out of all Gothic literature. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a point—too many sweets can and will lead to bad health, after all and your mind, like your body, does become whatever you feed it. 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–

\Success in Circuit lies

Emily Dickenson

Maria, fails in its ultimate purpose as a literary work. Written as an anti-Gothic novel, based upon actual experience, it fails to do what Udolpho and Otranto do at a basic level and that is to deliver thrills and chills while delivering social commentary. Udolpho is, among other things, an invective against parents who are themselves unwilling to prepare their children for the world ahead and ensure they can survive on their own. Otranto  is the great invective against demonizing all of previous history for the purpose of glorifying the present and being somehow more advanced—when it may have demons of its own rooted in the past. 

Wollstonecraft had very rich material from which to work. She saw women of her own family get abused and abandoned by negligent husbands and she herself suffered from mistreatment from several men. All these experiences are framed in the events of the novel. The problem comes in her writing style. Wollstonecraft loses the tact and the winning wit which make her points so compelling in Vindication.  This means Maria ends up coming off as judgmental, preachy, and, dare I say it, boring. No, that’s not easy for me to say. I have the greatest respect for Wollstonecraft and her work. I wouldn’t not be able to be here today without her and what she did for women.

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As big of a literary failure as Maria was, however, it does have some valuable lessons in it outside of it’s historical context. As a historical example of what women did sometimes have to suffer, it’s absolutely astounding and something which women who suffer the same wrongs across the globe can look to and be somewhat comforted that their wrongs are not just their own—they are the wrongs other women have endured too. As a lesson to writers, Maria hold some valuable lessons which we would do well to keep in mind. 

  1. Don’t Discount Frivolity–It May Get Your Point Across

Wollstonecraft’s singular dislike of the seeming pettiness so evident in the literary styles of her day worked against her when she wrote Maria. There are several passages, such as when Maria and Danforth are communicating back and forth between their prison cells which mirror passages in The Mysteries of Udolpho only Udolpho has greater entertainment value while still subtly making similar points. Personally, I think if you took Maria and turned it into a science fiction novel, you will potentially get something very similar to the Alienfranchise. It perhaps would lack the in-your-face effect, but it also might actually unsettle your reader just enough to where they start thinking. Think Inception for a minute—you must allow your audience to give themselves the idea or the mind rejects it.

So, when you are writing a story and you have a non-fictional intent behind your novel, don’t discount some of the seemingly meaningless points. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” The reader has to give themselves the idea. 

2. Be True Your Own Style

Wollstonecraft was herself a very non-fictional writer and she demonstrates just how accomplished her writing is in Vindication. It still remains one of my all-time favorite political treatises because it articulates what feminism, at it’s absolute base, is all about. What it’s become is another matter, but if Vindication is considered the baseline, then most women would more than likely agree with 99.9% of what Wollstonecraft lays out. She’s succinct, she is logical, she is reasonable, and she presents her points in ways which would fit in all but the most closed-minded societies and cultures even to this day. 

Maria’s failure partially because Wollstonecraft was not true to her own style. She tried for literary drama and ended up with political hysteria. She tried to be something she wasn’t. She wasn’t a great novelist at heart—she was a great essayist. This should both encourage and discourage you as a writer. It should encourage you to be true to your own literary style, your own editorial voice, and your own ways of writing and thinking about the world. It should discourage you to deviate too far from where your true gifts lie. If you aren’t a great at narrative, the novel is not necessarily for you. If you aren’t into meter, then poetry isn’t for you. Always be yourself, and don’t let others pressure your to write in ways which don’t suite your own style and voice. 

3. Allow Your Imagination to Run Wild

As with any writer who draws from their own personal experiences, particularly if those experiences are painful, the temptation is to copy them exactly—to make the reader see exactly what we ourselves went through. There’s also a temptation, like what I discussed “Writing Scenery”, to draw as close to first-hand experience as possible. 

What this does is limit you in extremis. Wollstonecraft, drawing from her own life experiences, did not open Maria’s life to other possibilities. Perhaps the judge in her case would lend a friendly ear. Perhaps someone other than the equally downtrodden Jemima would understand her plight. Even Charles Dickens allowed for possibilities outside of the usual in his literary writings. How else would a miser like Scrooge turn into such a philanthropist? 

Would your storyline work in a different world? A different time? Open your mind to the wild and wonderful possibilities outside of the here and now. Defy gravity, time, space, convention, and reality to get your points across. Look at Dune and what it did for the ecological movement. 

4. Don’t let your personal sense of wrongdoing cloud your writing

Again, this is a temptation for anyone drawing from historical wrongs either in their own life or in their ancestor’s lives. It’s completely understandable on one level. There are a lot of wrongs in this world both past and present and there are hurts time does not heal easily or quickly. But, the last thing we should do is fictionalize them exactly as they are.

This is seeking outside validation for your personal feelings and it’s not necessarily in your best interests. For one, you can actually get sued (its called libel) and while the publicity may do well for the book, it may be short-lived success. For another, it doesn’t really help you does it? How are you supposed to move forward if all you do is think about how someone else wronged you? What you end up doing is self-sabotaging. 

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Now, this isn’t to say you should strip out everything personal in your writing. Authenticity in any written form demands we put in something of ourselves. However, when we have experience or suffered wrongs, that should become the be-all end-all now and forevermore. Not everything is about the hurt you suffered or the hurt you fell others have suffered. Not everything is about what was done in the past. Nor is everything about one specific issue in the world. This is possibly the primary pitfall of Maria—it’s so focused on its social and political purposes that it ends up being another treatise, only more poorly written. In other words, it’s preachy. Now, having come from an Evangelical Christian upbringing, I can tell you all about being preachy. The primary thing being that it doesn’t work unless your prospect is already halfway sold in the first place. If there are any doubts, the jig is up. 

O heart lose not thy nature! […]

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;

I will speak daggers […] but use none

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii, Lines

Shakespeare

I will confess I have had problems with all of the above too. My novels have a lot in them which are drawn from experiences I’ve had: emotions, hurts, betrayals, and even my own failings. All excellent material for a novel, but in writing it, I felt myself only becoming angrier, not less. The solution? Again, imagination. What ending did I want for my character that I either didn’t have or couldn’t have had? Of course, in writing and developing characters of my own, I soon found them acting in ways I would not necessarily have acted and reacting in ways I wish I had acted in similar situations. When I unbound myself from my characters and stopped seeing them as reenacting my life and saw them as living lives of their own, then everything turned on its head and my writing started to improve drastically

For a while too there was a temptation to write other than what made me ultimately fulfilled. Now, there is a time and a place for writing outside your comfort zone—such as when you a learning a new skill or a new mode of expression, but if that new skill or mode of expression ultimately doesn’t fulfill you, then, it’s sort of pointless. You’ll produce substandard work, you won’t be happy, and ultimately, your reader or client may not be happy either. Did Wollstonecraft accomplish anything? Not with Maria. Arguably, Vindication did accomplish something—it laid the groundwork for a global society which, despite its failings, has far greater equality and liberty than Wollstonecraft ever knew in her own life. A novelist she is not, but her failings can be our lessons. Her triumphs are already our own. 

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