A decade into writing historical fiction for a living, there are still moments when I am slightly taken aback by my job. Not by the fiction part—I’ve always loved novels, and almost always knew I wanted to write them. It’s the history part that confounds me. As someone who’d always found history classes dry and rarely read non-fiction for pleasure, I’d never imagined that my first novel would be informed by hours upon hours of immersion in history texts. What I’d imagined was a more conventional debut: something snappy and semi-autobiographical and coming-of-age-centered. In fact, it was just that sort of a novel that I was working on when a chance visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City—quite literally—changed my life.
It was 1999, and the museum was hosting a Modern Chinese Art exhibition. I was immediately drawn to a wistful self-portrait by an artist named Pan Yuliang. The painting itself was fascinating—bold-hued, constructed with the thick and confident strokes of a Manet, but edged with the delicacy of Chinese calligraphy. I loved it on sight. But it was the story of the artist, rather than her image, that really blew me away. I simply couldn’t get it out of my head—that this woman, sold into a brothel at fourteen and rescued by a Republican official four years later, ended up on in Paris on scholarship in 1920’s and went on to become one of China’s most celebrated and controversial modern painters.
My husband—a documentary filmmaker with a great eye for plot–suggested I make this my first novel instead of the book I was working on. I told him he was crazy. I didn’t speak Chinese, knew little about art, and couldn’t begin to imagine how much ponderous research it would take for me to feel even vaguely qualified to tell this story. A few weeks later, though, there I was, signing up for classes in oil painting—and a graduate seminar in modern Chinese history. Ugh, I remember thinking as I submitted my course selections.
To my surprise, though, I found myself loving that seminar in a way I’d never really loved history classes before. I literally couldn’t get enough. I took voracious notes, asked numerous questions and devoured everything that was assigned, sometimes re-reading particularly intriguing sections out loud to my husband (who must have wondered at the history fanatic he’d created).
So what had changed? In retrospect, it was the frame through which I was seeing history itself. Viewed as simply a discipline–a mere checklist of dates and places to memorize—it could feel like a drag. But viewing history as fodder for a fictional world had an almost alchemic effect upon it for me. It rendered what might otherwise seem like bone-dry dates and events into vibrant building blocks—ones that I would ultimately use to create the living, breathing universe that became my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai.
I had the same experience with my second novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, which is set against the Pacific War. In the past, I’d never really understood why World War II buffs were, well, so buffed about that globe-spanning conflict. But as I began to write from the various perspectives of my characters—as a young pilot in the 1942 Doolittle Raids, for instance, or as a young Japanese girl surviving a brutal firebombing–I often found myself so deeply immersed in these long-ago events that my pulse would actually quicken. I wasn’t merely reading about a period in history—I was reliving it through my characters.
As a writer, it was exciting to see material I’d once viewed as a chore to learn transformed into something fascinating and alive. As a writing instructor, though, the larger lesson doesn’t escape me: that the best way to write anything effectively is by finding a way to engage it personally. It’s something I’ve observed over and over in the hours I spend coaching students with their writing—be it for high school English projects, college application essays or M.F.A. theses at Columbia. If you feel removed and distant from your subject, your writing about it will read as removed and distant. Approach it as something powerfully connected to you personally, and it will make for powerful reading.
I witnessed one of most dramatic demonstrations of this axiom last year, while mentoring a young woman through the program Girls Write Now. Over the course of several weeks we’d been working on over a dozen college essays together. And while both her qualifications and her writing ability were outstanding (she graduated with honors from Brooklyn Tech), I noticed that many of her first drafts for her applications suffered from the malaise so many college essays do: rather than communicating the strength, resilience and intense creativity I’d come to know in her character, they read like laundry lists of her interests and accomplishments. After struggling with one essay in particular about why literature mattered to her, I finally asked her to take a look at a memoir-style essay she’d written earlier for a writing contest. It was a piece detailing a profoundly dramatic and difficult moment in her home life, and demonstrating how her love of reading had helped to get her through it. In the end, by taking that same moment and integrating it into her college essay, she all but electrified the material, ending up with a moving essay that not only revealed literature’s profound impact on her life, but which communicated her own strength of character and academic determination—things which would otherwise have been missing from the piece. And in the end, she was awarded a full scholarship to the top state school on her list.
So how do you get your own young writer engaged in their writing? For starters, encourage them to think not in terms of the ideas they want their piece to get across (I am great at organizing extracurricular events) but actual examples—moments in time—that illustrate those ideas in an engaging and vibrant way (Last year, one of several extracurricular events I organized was the school bake sale, for which we baked everything from buttermilk pies to s’mores brownies). Have them think of the essay as less of an “essay” (yawn) than an opportunity to tell a story—complete with narrative tension (We frankly weren’t sure we’d be able to raise enough money for our trip to Philadelphia), humor (Things got a little sticky when Mrs. Adam’s toffee bars were placed too close to the hot chocolate and melted all over the table) and a resolution (In the end, we raised over six-hundred dollars, ensuring that everyone who need financial help on the trip would get it).
Most importantly, have them make sure the piece communicates their own, unique voice—and not a voice they might think is more “appropriate.” For in the end, their job as essayists is the same as mine as a novelist: to, as E.M. Forster famously noted, only connect. If they do, not only will their material be that much more fun to write, but it in turn will connect that much more effectively with readers.
By Jennifer Epstein, Writing Coach