Writing & Resilience

TEDx Youth event 11 May 2024.

Later this morning, I’m leaving for Milford, the town where Damon Knight, James Blish, and Virginia Kidd helped establish science fiction as a respected literary genre and where The Virginia Kidd Literary Agency still operates out of Kidd’s former residence.

Blish and Kidd dubbed their residence Arrowhead, and during the 1960s it served as a getaway for SF writers who wanted to get away from nearby New York City. Such luminaries as Damon KnightKate WilhelmThomas M. DischJudith MerrilLester del ReyAnne McCaffreyArthur C. Clarke, and Frederik Pohl gathered there to crash, critique, and establish (in 1965) the Science Fiction Writers of America (now officially known as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association).

I wrote about the reason for the trip in yesterday’s post, and I’ll likely be posting an update in the days ahead, but today I’d like to share some thoughts on Writing & Resilience from a recent TEDx event.

The video is below, along with the original text of the talk. Naturally, given the nature of live performance, the written text contains a few things that were elided or altered in the talk.

The Resilience of Frankenstein

It occurs to me that much of what I know about resilience comes from a novel written by a teenage girl over 200 years ago.

The book is Frankenstein, the girl is Mary Godwin, and what they have to teach us comes as much from the story presented in the book itself—which is the tragedy of a man who lacks the resilience to follow through with his dreams—as it does from the tenacity of the struggling author who refused to give up on hers.

Mary was 18 when she set her sights on writing a novel, a major undertaking for anyone, but much more so for a young woman in the early 19th century. At the time, nearly all of Brittan’s novelists were men, and the few exceptions wrote comedies and romances.

But Mary has had other ambitions. Her book wouldn’t fit any existing category, and it would deal with subjects that no writer—man or woman—had yet fully explored.

It is often said that Mary started working on the manuscript that would become Frankenstein while traveling through Europe. But as romantic as the phrase traveling through Europe might sound, the truth is that she was homeless, estranged from her father, caring for an infant son, and in a relationship with a fiancé whose tenuous grasp of finances had plunged them both deep into debt.

And yet, over the next year—while caring for her child and staying one step ahead of her fiancé’s creditors—she managed to complete the novel and send it to a publisher who—within three days replied with a rejection. Thus, the book that she had spent a year writing had been dismissed in the time it took for a package to travel across London, and back again.

Undeterred, she submitted it to another publisher, who also rejected it.

She tried yet again, finally placing it with a small company that agreed to publish the book anonymously—for who would be interested in reading such a novel written by a woman—and with an agreement that Mary would receive no money upfront, but would instead be paid a small percentage of the profits from the sale of the book.

Such a deal was hardly a windfall, especially considering only 500 copies of the book were printed, and those did not sell. Eight months later, booksellers were still trying to move unsold stock. 

And then there were the negative reviews, with one writer calling the book a work of “horrible and disgusting absurdity.”

And another dismissing it because: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is […] the prevailing fault of the novel.”

But perhaps the most damning comment came from fellow novelist William Beckford who wrote that Frankenstein “is perhaps the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present time.”

Yet Mary, who by then was Mary Shelley, never gave up on her ambitions to become a successful writer. Undeterred, she set to work on a second book, which she managed to finish a few years later—despite personal tragedies that included the death of her three-year-old son from malaria and her husband by drowning.

The second novel was published in 1823, but it, like her first book, did little to improve her finances, but in that same year, something remarkable happened.

Mary was back in Europe when she received a letter informing her that an unauthorized adaptation of her first novel was scheduled to be performed at the English Opera House in London. It was news to Mary.

In those days, a playwright could adapt a literary work without the permission of its author, and novelists were not entitled to compensation for plays based on their intellectual property. Yet Mary was delighted that her forgotten book would be getting new life on the stage.

Unfortunately, as with the novel, the play generated a wave of derision, with the London Society for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality writing in part: “Do not go … to see this monstrous Drama [based] on the improper work called Frankenstein. Do not take your wives and families. The novel itself is of a decidedly immoral tendency; it treats of a subject which in nature cannot occur.”

The warning “Do not take your wives” was possibly a response to reports that the performance was causing “ladies to faint away and hubbub to ensue.”

Nevertheless, despite such reports—or possibly because of them—the play was a resounding success, and Mary returned to London where she discovered that—after years of struggling in obscurity—she was suddenly a celebrated author. As she put it in a letter to a friend: “Lo and behold. I found myself famous!”

Indeed, the play proved so successful that a new printing of the novel– this one bearing the author’s name–was rushed into print and followed by a new edition with an introduction in which Mary wrote “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” And this time, it did.

The book sold briskly, more adaptations followed, and today Frankenstein is recognized as a classic of world literature and has earned Mary Shelley a place in the pantheon of greatest writers of all time.

Moreover, the novel and its many spin-offs—plays, films, television shows, graphic novels, book-length adaptations, Halloween masks–have become such a major part of Western culture that it’s hard to imagine a world in which Mary Shelley’s book never existed. And yet, it almost didn’t.

  • If Mary Shelley had not challenged the convention that novels are written by men…
  • If she had let her precarious finances and family hardships distract her from her work…
  • If she had given up on her book after multiple rejections…
  • And if negative reviews had compelled her to disown her work and remain the anonymous author of a derided first novel…

Then we would not be talking about her today … and our world would be poorer for it.

Today, Frankenstein is considered the prototype for the modern science fiction novel. And so it is perhaps appropriate that a little over a century after Mary Shelley found herself famous, that the famous 20th-century’s science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein set forth his principles for becoming a successful writer—principles that seem to sum up Mary Shelley’s resilience.

If you want to be a writer, Heinlein said, you must first write. Then you must finish what you write. And when it is finished, you must submit that work for publication. And once submitted, you must continue to believe in your work, stand by your creation, and keep submitting it until it is sold.

Considered more broadly, these rules can apply to any long-term endeavor.

The world may try to distract us, keep us from our ambitions, and lead us to suspect our dreams are not worth pursuing. Indeed, our preliminary efforts may fall so short of expectations that we may think it better to give up on them entirely.

When that happens, I find it helpful to remember the fate of the protagonist of Shelley’s novel—an ambitious student who sets out to create something greater than himself only to discover after two years of struggle that the initial work has fallen short of his expectations. Perceiving that he has failed, he gives up, dismisses his dream as a nightmare, walks away, and suffers the consequences.

Thus, Shelley’s novel—both in the way it was created and the story that it tells—is a model that has much to teach us about the importance of resilience.

With that, I wish you resilience as you pursue your dreams. And to paraphrase Shelley, I bid you go forth … and prosper.

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  1. The cinematography alone draws me in. Thanks for the heads-up on this one, Larry. And best of luck as your…