This conversation is the second part of my discussion with my wonderful colleague, Cate Otto. Together, we both chose passages that stand out as examples of good writing, and we discussed why that is. If you've not read our previous conversation, there will be some references in the following dialogue. This time, it was my turn to select a passage, and I chose one from LM Montgomery's The Blue Castle (1926).
“You forget, Moonlight, that there are different kinds of beauty. Your imagination is obsessed by the very obvious type of your cousin Olive. Oh, I've seen her—she's a stunner—but you'd never catch Allan Tierney wanting to paint her. In the horrible but expressive slang phrase, she keeps all her goods in the shop-window. But in your subconscious mind you have a conviction that nobody can be beautiful who doesn't look like Olive. Also, you remember your face as it was in the days when your soul was not allowed to shine through it.”
She wrote the Anne of Green Gables series. The way that I would describe this book is incredibly smart, I guess. This character begins her life in a family that is very restrictive. They put her in this box, and the only way that she can really escape that box is in her own mind, essentially. They say that she's not beautiful, she has to do this, she has to laugh at that. She has to sacrifice her personhood for the betterment of her family or for appearances.
She does that until one day, she goes to the doctor, and she finds out something out about herself. Through that, she finally embraces who she is as a person. She also ends up getting married, but it's not a marriage plot novel. It's not a marriage plot novel because the marriage takes place in the middle of the book. So, there's got to be a greater meaning at play. Her husband sees a specific kind of beauty in her and this is what this passage is about. He's specifically talking about how, when she looks over her shoulder a certain way, she has this kind of captivating look about her. It's representing a kind of beauty that he's not used to seeing.
When she wears like a certain dress, he calls her Moonlight. I think that's really sweet. This painter, Allan Tierney, is this famous painter in the area, and he wants to paint her. I should have said, her name is Valancy. Tierney says he saw her looking over her shoulder with that exact expression, and he was very captivated by her face. So, this passage is what her husband says when she's doubting herself. It's very striking because it's easy to represent a man in literature as someone who has values that are connected to women's beauty in a specific way or a woman's disposition in a certain way. In this conversation, what he's expressing is a lot more complicated. I love how he says, "In the horrible but expressive slang phrase, she keeps all her goods in the shop window." Like, it's not something that he wants to say. Maybe it's the only thing he can think of in that moment.
It's like, he didn't have a better way to say it in the moment, but the writer didn't stop it. She didn't plan it that way. So, it has a conversational tone to it because there is this error, if you can call it that. It's not perfect. It is the way it's the way we speak. I also think it's something that a lot of women can relate to because we all have an image of someone who's considered the epitome of beauty for us. It's not necessarily a celebrity or a model, or we may know someone personally. We all have an Olive. I think most women have an Olive who you look at and think, "If only I could look like her" or "That's what beauty is. That's what everyone should look like." So that, to me, is very relatable. I can imagine a lot of women might feel that way.
It is very relatable. Then, there's this, "... but you'd never catch Allan Tierney wanting to paint her." Olive is all about appearances. Valancy, and this is a response to that, is talking about appearances, not reality. Her husband is reminding her of the differences between appearances and reality. In this way, I guess, her past follows her even though she has very much come into her own.
I was quite surprised. By the end of it, when he says, "You remember your face as it was in the days when your soul was not allowed to shine through it," which obviously implies that there has been some change in her. The fact that he has to remind her of this, convince her of this, speaks to the conflict in her not being entirely resolved, and part of her is still stuck on who she was before.
I kind of love that. I don't love that for this character, but I love that as a narrative device. She experienced trauma, and expressing trauma through writing sometimes results in a transformation that's very...instant. When it's instant, when there aren't remnants of the past, it doesn't feel natural, it doesn't feel real. It's very difficult, maybe not impossible, but difficult to make a full-blown transformation in a very short span of time.
It's like the idea of starting on a clean slate. It will never be exactly like that. There will always be a gradual transition from one to the other. I think, even when you have transition, you'll still have remnants from where you were before. It's same with Nabokov and the every day human condition. This is how people are. It would seem to me that people who are able to pin down some truth about what it means to be human, those are the passages we remember. Those are the writers we remember.
I mean, it is beautiful. It's breathtaking. First of all, the fact that he calls her Moonlight and then how that somehow relates to her soul that shines through her face. There's definite poetry to it. I think the most striking thing is his description of what it is to be human or the implication of what it means, in this specific instance, to be a woman. I think that would be my takeaway from the passage. I read something somewhere once, that people want to understand themselves through what they read something, they want to come to a greater understanding of themselves.
Yeah, we're looking for something personal, a personal connection, something that feels real.
Yes, that goes beyond context. That's something else, I think, we get stuck on the idea that only certain people will be able to relate to something because they don't necessarily share a background or a culture or whatever it may be, but they are. We are all human and on some level, we do all share something. If you are able to understand what that is, what the shared human experience is that transcends social and cultural and geographical contexts, then I think you've really got something.
I do have a little bit of context for this, kind of relating to what you are saying, shared human experiences. When LM Montgomery was writing this, she was actually in the middle of a different book series. She was taking care of her husband who was suffering from what we understand is a mental illness. She was also suffering from a mental illness of her own, and she was facing a lot of pressure from her own family who fully denied mental health as a concept. So, a lot of this book is about different attitudes towards like sickness and health. In a lot of ways, they even treat a lack of beauty as a social sickness.
Note: The following portion of this discussion tests "sickness", "health", and "beauty" as concepts that transcend social, cultural, and geographical contexts.
There's a book, I think it's called The Beauty Myth. Yes, by Naomi Wolf. It speaks about how beauty or perceptions of beauty are used to control women. I think, even today, it's not something that that that we are completely rid of. It's a mechanism of control to promote this idea of what it means to be beautiful. Not just that, but like you said about not being beautiful, a lack of beauty is considered a sickness. It's actually shocking to think that The Beauty Myth was written in 1990, and this was written in 1926. There's almost a 70 year gap between them and somehow they seem to speak of the same thing.
I think it's interesting that you bring in this idea of control. To what extent can you exert control over a sickness?
It depends on if it really is a sickness. I don't think control is exerted over the sickness as much as it is by labeling something as a sickness. I think that's where the control comes in. If you say a lack of beauty is a sickness, then that's exercising control over a person who, according to standards, lacks beauty. I'd actually love to read the book! I'm curious to understand her background and her journey and how she had this perception of who she was and how she had to live and who she needed to be. Was that because of her family, or was it a greater social construction?
A bit of both. It's worth mentioning that her family would like forbid her from speaking to the man who would be her husband. She broke away from that control, but it didn't feel like she was released from one kind of control and put into another. Even before she gets married, when she's in a different setting, she's getting used to the idea of breaking out of control. She is actually placed in the role of a caregiver. That's a very interesting experience. So, all of that culminates. I feel like what she learns from being a caregiver, what she learns from having been in this very unsupportive family unit, what she learns from her books, what she learns when she breaks away from the only existence that she ever knew, it all builds up to this moment. Everybody everywhere has been showing her what beauty, to them, is.
It would be interesting to hear a man's perspective on this as it was written by a woman. By that I mean that it would be interesting to get a man's perspective on what this man has to say.
We discussed this idea a little bit and how gathering these insights relate to the "What We Take" project.
What I'm getting from you, in this space, is an essential part of what makes good writing is that it conveys something real that connects with you, with the idea of what it means to be human and have a human experience.
It's exactly what they say about comedy as well. The base of comedy is something that's true. I don't know how it is in America, but in South Africa, when things keep going wrong, all a comedian has to do is just point out whatever was on the news, but say it a different tone of voice. That somehow makes it funny. It's exactly that, it's something that's real. It's something we can relate to because it's true. It speaks to your experience.
As obvious and as simple as it sounds, it's so difficult to do that.
It is because I think it's difficult to distinguish between what is real for you and what is real for everyone. You have to really understand people. I don't know if it's the type of understanding that will come from consciously studying people or if it's just some sort of intuition. I'm also trying to figure out, if you were to try and get to that sort of understanding, if it would take reflection or if you get it from yourself. Can you only get it from other people?
I think it would depend very much on how your mind works. I might even say that the same task could be done if you really didn't understand people, and that was the angle that you were going with. For example, if everything that I see right now is an anomaly, I understand none of it, but I can at the very least express that lack of understanding.
Even that is a truth. Not understanding is something that's common to us all! I think we all have a moment when we're like, "I just don't get it."
So, harm is universal and not understanding something is universal?
Exactly, but if you were to try and improve your own your own ability to do this to convey this sort of experience, how do you think you would would go about it? If I were to say, "Okay, I want to try and write something that's universally relatable." How would you go about doing that?
I guess I would first acknowledge that I can only really speak from my own experience. I can know what a person's identity is. They're from somewhere, they have this religion, they have this kind of relationship to those things. I'm not going to be able to fully understand their experience and viewpoints because I don't inhabit those spaces. I don't inhabit the same spaces that they inhabit. Even if I did, I don't experience them in the same way. The way that I internalize those experiences is going to look very different. So, I would say that the way that I would go about something real, something universal is that I would start by taking into account those limits. I would almost argue that, adding in those factors, there is no universal experience. There are so many different cultures, there are so many different ways of processing things that you or I haven't even thought of.
What I just realized is that the interesting thing with "harm" and "beauty", for instance, is that they are both universal in that everyone has a conception of harm or beauty, but your specific perspective or your specific experience of it differs from person to person or culture to culture. So, there are certain overarching ideas that have been interpreted differently by different people.
There's something universal, I suppose, to understanding or or creating something that's relatable. It feels like it's built into the structure of the universe in some way. Some people just seem to be able to convey that, whether consciously or otherwise. That's amazing.
That's something that fascinates me about literature, about books. They can shape all of these different experiences of the world, and you're not relying on anything, but the "facts" given to you or the interpretations that are given to you. You don't have to come from every experience a changed person, but you come out of the experience having learned something.
Yes, exactly, you having nothing at your disposal except for the facts and your own experience and what you're able to immerse yourself into or imagine yourself into. I suppose your only limit is your own mind or your own imagination. If you are able to imagine living in the shoes of whomever, then you can go there. If you if you can't stretch your imagination that far, then you are limited in that. That's not to say that you won't be a great writer. You don't have to be able to speak from someone else's experience or try and imagine someone else's experience in that way, but yeah. All you really have, I suppose, is experience, whether real or imagined.
I love that so much, and I hate to say that we're running low on time. Before we wrap things up here, do you have any closing thoughts?
I think everything relates to each other in a way. Everything's connected. I mean, we just connected Canadian literature and Russian literature. So, if that can be done, then everything can be done.
Yes! I like that.
How about you?
There's a reason why we tell people who write to read. It's not an empty sentiment. We read to form experiences through what we're reading, we read because other people have experienced things, or there are feelings that we have yet to experience. Maybe they experience them in a way that we didn't see. There are so many reasons why we tell people to read, and it's going to make this project difficult, but that's exactly what I love about it.
I always see reading as your training camp for writing. To me, at least, that's where I learn. I mean, both good and bad. It's also where you learn the tricks, and then you get to experience what works and what doesn't. For you, personally, there's what you relate to and what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable and what evokes emotion and what doesn't. People sometimes pick a genre and that becomes their favorite and they stick to that, but you need to read as diversely as you possibly can. Read what makes you comfortable, read what makes you uncomfortable, especially things that make you uncomfortable. There's a lot to be learned from strong emotion and something that evokes strong emotion.
Thank you so much for doing this and for joining me today!
Thank you so much to everyone who has given feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and a big thank you to Cate Otto for the amazing conversation and for the insight that she provided. I learned a great deal from our conversation, and I'm so excited to see where this series will take us.
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Future posts hold further analysis of loaded language and more conversations just like this one! I can't wait to hear from our future guests!
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Montgomery, L. M. (1926). The blue castle: A novel. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co.