On being a writer – Nina Darnton

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By Nina Darnton

The other day, on a car trip with two of my grandchildren, I heard them arguing. I ignored it until, irate and indignant, one of them sought my help: “He said I was stupid,” she charged. “Well she said I was a liar,” her brother shot back, enraged. Trying to calm them, I told them about a story I had read concerning 84 year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 24 years. Asked if she had any advice she could impart after her apparent success both personally and professionally, she said she did.

“In every good marriage,” she said, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf. I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home, through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court.”

After fending off the children’s first reaction, which was pretending not to hear anything further I said, I tried to explain to them the importance of not reacting to every word a person says, no matter how insulting or provocative.

I thought about this quite a bit after I dropped the children off at home. The advice is perfect for most work and for relationships. But a writer cannot follow it in developing her craft. A writer must hear every word, every nuance, every subtext, every gesture verbal and non-verbal and understand what they tell her about human nature in general and the characters she creates in particular.

This is sometimes awkward. A writer’s relationships become tainted by her need to analyze and even record the stories, words and emotions of the people around her. She may place words said in one context by a friend into the mouth of a character quite unlike the original source. She may even use character traits, physical attributes and thinly disguised stories of people she knows in her work.

The words they said, the words she couldn’t allow herself to be deaf to, sound like shouting to the person who said them, who sees them transformed and yet familiar and who feels robbed, maybe even betrayed. I once used words my son said to me in one of my books, out of context and in the mouth of a character very different from him. Still, he recognized the words. “Is that even legal?” he asked. Fortunately, he was laughing. But not everyone is so forgiving. What is a writer to do? When there is a conflict between your life and your art, how do you resolve it without betraying either one?

I once had the privilege of sitting next to E. L. Doctorow, an author I had always admired, at a dinner party. I posed that question to him. His answer impressed me and I would like to pass it on to writers and aspiring writers who may face a similar dilemma.

He said the most important thing for a writer to do with an idea of a story or a character is to write it. But, he added, that doesn’t mean they have to publish it. That decision must be left to the individual writers who know their own circumstances and can assess who and how much their published works will harm.

I have tried to follow that advice in the books I have written. I hope I have succeeded.

Nina Darnton is the author of the critically acclaimed novels An African Affair and The Perfect Mother as well as Risking It All. She has written for The New York Times, Elle, House and Garden, Travel and Leisure, the New York Post, and Newsweek. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin, an MS in Psychology from the New School of Social Research, and an MFA from Columbia University. Nina and her husband John Darnton have three children and five grandchildren and live in New York City and New Paltz, New York.


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