Happy June! Cicada Brood X has emerged and is causing quite a racket in my neighborhood, but I can’t say I mind it. A little white noise is good for my brain. I just finished my most recent manuscript and am now trying to catch up on some reading while ideas of my next project circle around my mind like sharks going for the kill. That’s one reason I chose this month’s quote.
“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. Then you go out, you interrupt someone who is busy — Max usually, because he is so good-natured — and you say: ‘It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write — I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’
“‘Oh yes, you will,’ Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first; now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.
“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’
“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’
“‘It’s different this time,’ I say, with positive assurance.
“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again. Such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that will be in the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through.”
The Context: In this recollection, Agatha has just finished writing a theatrical adaptation of The Hollow. Once it was a success, she felt she really had a handle on the whole writing thing, although every time she had a bit of despair at the beginning of a new project, wondering if maybe this time would be the time she couldn’t do it.
Why I Chose It: Well, it’s majorly relatable. I think most writers know that feeling very well. You finish one project and you’re floating on that high for a while. Then you think, “I’m going to start my next one,” and you have ideas—so many ideas!—but choosing the right one and starting on it can feel like trying to push a semi uphill. And slowly the question creeps in, what if you can’t actually write another one? What if you’ve written all you had in you and you’re all out? Evidently it does’t matter how much you’ve written before (at that point, Agatha had written dozens of books), there’s always a point where a writer wonders if they can actually do it again.
But in the end, Agatha and the rest of us realize this is what we do. There are always ideas and there are always more books/stories/plays in us. We’ll get there, as long as we (and our loved ones) can survive the initial painful month of questioning everything we ever thought we knew. (Speaking of what we think we know, next month I’ll be shifting a bit and sharing what I think happened during Agatha’s mysterious disappearance, based on all the clues laid out in her autobiography. I can’t wait. I have thoughts.)
Happy May! I hope the spring weather is absolutely lovely where you are. This month, I’m focusing on how Agatha Christie viewed her writing, especially in the early days as she was establishing herself as a storyteller.
“It was by now just beginning to dawn on me that perhaps I might be a writer by profession. I was not sure of it yet. I still had an idea that writing books was only the natural successor to embroidering sofa-cushions.”
The Context: This quote is actually in the same section as the one I shared last month. (There are so many quotable pieces about writing in that section!) This was when she was still married to her first husband and had just moved to Scotswood. At that point, she had written four published novels. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that Agatha didn’t really have a strong aspiration to become a writer. In many ways, she sort of fell into it. She also talks in this section about how she had taken lessons in sculpture because, “I was a great admirer of the art — much more than of pictures — and I had a real yearning to be a sculptor myself.” But upon attempting it, she realized she didn’t have a natural capacity for it. She was also a talented pianist as a child, but had such stage fright, she struggled to perform for an audience. As an adult, she tried to compose songs, but didn’t know much about harmony and composition. Only after trying all these other artistic pursuits did she realize, “… writing seemed to be indicated as my proper trade and self-expression.”
Why I Chose It: It’s interesting to examine how people end up in specific careers, especially people who find great success and come to define a certain profession. The fact that Agatha was able to try things until she found something she was good at is definitely a privilege of the wealthier classes. Artistic endeavors were just something people in her social class did, like learning to embroider—stitched a lovely sofa-cushion, wrote an amusing story, all in a day’s work! But it also highlights her natural creativity, that she always wanted to be creating something, whether it was music or poetry or an imaginary friend.
When writing comes out of that mindset, I imagine it can take a minute to recognize it as a full profession instead of simply a hobby. And as someone who used to cross-stitch as a child, started learning and performing music at the age of nine, and loved acting and dancing, I appreciate knowing I share that craftiness and creativity with Agatha.
There is no set definition for success in a specific profession. There’s no singular moment that defines a writer as a true professional instead of a dabbler, so it’s no surprise that the realization came to Agatha slowly, a gentle dawning of the idea that, in fact, she might be a real writer, officially, professionally. As humble as she was, I think she’d be quite shocked to know that, even now, she’s one of the bestselling authors of all time. I think we can all agree she definitely found her profession.
Happy April! I sat outside earlier today to get some sunlight and wow, I’ve missed that all-natural Vitamin D. It always seems to warm up my brain, shooting creative inspiration all the way through it. Speaking of creativity and writing, our quote this month is one that quite amuses me, and I think you’ll see why.
“An early story of mine was shown to a well-known authoress by a kindly friend. She reported on it sadly but adversely, saying the author would never make a writer. What she really meant, although she did not know it herself because she was an author and not a critic, was that the person who was writing was still an immature and inadequate writer who could not as yet produce anything worth publishing. A critic or an editor might have been more perceptive, because it is their profession to notice the germs of what may be. So I don’t like criticising and I think it can easily do harm.”
The Context: This section opens with this quote I wrote about a couple months ago where Agatha talks about how quickly criticism can squash someone’s creative spark. This month’s quote comes after her musing about assessing other people’s work. Unsurprisingly, she was often asked to evaluate manuscripts, but she remarks, “I don’t think an author is competent to criticise. Your criticism is bound to be that you yourself would have written it in such and such a way, but that does not mean that that would be right for another author. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves.”
She does admit that the only evaluation she ever offered to writers was regarding the market, whether the writer’s word count fell within acceptable parameters. It’s clear by what she says that she encountered more than one person who swore their genius simply could not be contained within a specified word limit. She comments, “It is no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius — some people are, but very few.” She contrasts that approach with being a tradesman who needs to learn the technical skills of their trade so they can become skilled in their craft.
Why I Chose It: With writing, as with any artistic endeavor, it’s important to get feedback and assessment. But not all sources of evaluation are equal. Even the most well-meaning advice from a legitimate expert in the field can be wrong, as evidenced by the author who told Agatha Christie herself that she would never be an author. To be honest, I wish Agatha had named names here, but she was a classy dame, and it’s clear she harbored no ill will toward the author in question. And how lucky are we that she didn’t let that discouragement dissuade her? (Meanwhile, if I were Agatha, I would’ve quite happily sent the other author copy after copy of my bestselling works. With a note that said, “I guess I did okay for someone who would never be an author!” I know, I know. It’s petty.)
Agatha’s point here is still so relevant. Every writer has their own style, their own preferences, which will naturally assert themselves through a critique. I’ve personally received some strange and oddly specific writing advice. Some creative preferences are based on years of success in the industry, and for any new writer, it’s tempting to immediately accept those recommendations. It’s easy to see a successful author and think, Well they definitely know what they’re doing! But the truth is, they know what they’re doing in their writing. But they may not have the best advice for someone else.
That doesn’t mean that a writer can’t be a great mentor. There are some very talented authors who are uncanny at recognizing opportunities in stories and guiding writers toward improving their work. But it’s so important for any writer to remember, this is your story. You’re the one who has to talk about it. Your name will be on it. Make sure it’s something you’re proud of and that represents who you are, because otherwise what’s the point? Own your story. And don’t let discouragement destroy your passion.
Happy March! Today I’m sharing a powerful quote, along with one of my absolute favorite stories about Agatha Christie. I think it says so much about who she was.
“I do not enjoy big parties, but I can go to them, and whatever I feel is not really shyness. I suppose, actually, the feeling is — I don’t know whether every author feels it, but I think quite a lot do — that I am pretending to be something I am not, because, even nowadays, I do not quite feel as though I am an author. I still have that overlag of feeling that I am pretending to be an author.”
The Context: This quote follows what is my absolute favorite story of Agatha. In this section, she’s remembering the tenth anniversary of The Mousetrap, her most successful play. There was going to be a grand party at the Savoy, with lots of media and important guests. Quite naturally, Agatha was asked to attend the event and say a few words. She hated speeches and suffered from terrible stage fright her whole life, so this was already guaranteed to be a stressful occasion for her.
The play’s producer asked Agatha to arrive at the Savoy thirty minutes before the event. When she tried to enter the reserved space, she was told that people were not being admitted just yet. Instead of saying, “Excuse me, I’m the guest of honor and I was told to be here early,” Agatha simply turned around and walked away, where she wandered the corridors “trying to get up my courage to go back and say — in effect, like Margo Asquith — ‘I’m ME!’”
Fortunately, she was found by the producer’s general manager who laughed heartily and then escorted her into the event. I’m guessing the person who turned her away at the door felt incredibly foolish.
Why I Chose It: I absolutely love what this experience tells us about Agatha Christie. After the kind of success she’d had at that point, she would’ve been well within her rights to make sure everyone knew who she was and was aware of her success. But instead, she was remarkably humble throughout her life and never seemed to think of herself as anyone important, in spite of all the evidence proving she was very much a big deal.
Throughout her autobiography, it’s clear Agatha would rather observe or experience life than be the focus of attention from large crowds. She was the complete opposite of a fame-seeker. She didn’t want to be fawned over, and she never seemed to feel she deserved admiration. This specific quote really highlights how no one is immune from Imposter Syndrome. Even a literary legend felt she was pretending to be an author, playing the role for the crowds. It’s comforting to know that every creator who struggles with Imposter Syndrome is in most excellent company.
Happy February! I started this series of Agatha Christie quotes with the intention of sharing one on the first Wednesday of each month. However, the world keeps imploding on the first Wednesday of each month—election results, insurrections. And out of respect, I have been skipping those days. But thankfully, the world seems stable today (fingers crossed!), so I’m back to it!
“The trouble is that it is awfully hard for an author to put things in words when you have to do it in the course of conversation. You can do it with a pencil in your hand, or sitting in front of your typewriter — then the thing comes out already formed as it should come out — but you can’t describe things that you are only going to write; or at least I can’t. I learnt in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written. Criticism after you have written it is helpful. You can argue the point, or you can give in, but at least you know how it has struck one reader. Your own description of what you are going to write, however, sounds so futile, that to be told kindly that it won’t do meets with your instant agreement.”
The Context: Agatha opens this section by talking about how she would sometimes run book ideas by her first husband. She admits that even to her own ears, one of her attempts at explaining her story idea sounded “extraordinarily banal, futile, and a great many other adjectives which I will not particularize.” But in later years, that very same idea came to life again, and this time, in the absence of criticism or judgement, it blossomed and became one of her best books. That leads into this quote.
Why I Chose It: I think most creative people understand how difficult and fraught it is to describe your idea to someone else. They may offer exactly the encouragement and perspective you need. Or their feedback, well-intentioned though it may be, could squash the budding idea, crushing the delicate sprout back into the soil. It’s easy to hear someone offer what is probably constructive criticism and jump right to thinking it’s a terrible idea, especially if you weren’t sure it was particularly good to start with! Knowing that even a literary legend struggled with having confidence in her ideas is remarkably encouraging.
Creative ideas are so small and often amorphous; they grow and strengthen and develop more concrete form as we work on them. So describing them at the start can be difficult. Not to mention, capturing an idea in brief and direct terms is tricky (ask any writer who’s had to face down a synopsis!). We have to be gentle with our ideas. We have to protect and nurture them so they can grow. It’s only by allowing them space to mature and deepen that we discover what those budding ideas can become.