Agatha Said, pt. 14

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.

Agatha Said:

“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.

Agatha Said, pt. 13

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.

Agatha Said:

“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.

Agatha Said, pt. 12

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!

Agatha Said:

“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.