Creative Writing in What It Takes To Be Human

When I understood that my main character, Sandy Grey, the protagonist of What It Takes To Be Human (which takes place during World War II) was going to have to learn to write during his incarceration in an asylum for the criminally insane, I began thinking of how he would go about it. As far as I knew, there were no (to say the least!) writer-in-residencies, Creative Writing departments or degrees by correspondence associated with institutions in those days– but I wanted Sandy to take up writing as a means to advance the case for his innocence. How was he going to learn? His German roommate, Karl, composing romances to practice his English and avoid thinking about his circumstances, could introduce Sandy to the craft, but I knew that Karl’s fate would take him out of Sandy’s sphere before Sandy had done more than pick up a pen. More importantly, Sandy’s personality demanded that he approach learning to write step by step, and by attaching the principles of writing to his general observations of life. He needed direction, but of a philosophic as well as practical turn: he was living in an insane asylum. I’d taught writing, myself, in many institutions, but I’d never had a pupil quite like Sandy Grey.

I began with a look at the Famous Writers School, familiar from magazine advertisements during my childhood. Famous Writers was ‘fronted’ by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. Although I’d never quite understood the connection between the spooky voice of speculative television and a correspondence writing school, I thought that the Famous Writers method of absorbing lessons, completing assignments, sending them in and having them assessed by a ‘professional writer’, might be right up Sandy’s alley. Unfortunately, the dates were wrong. Famous Writers began somewhere between 1949 and 1951; not only that, when I read over the material kindly sent to me by a Famous Writers secretary who seemed to like the idea that a novelist might use Famous Writers as a theme, I realized that the impressive lessons, quite similar to the kind of thing dished out in present-day creative writing classes, were too laborious, too time-consuming, too uninspiredly industrial for my Sandy.

Next, a library search for Correspondence Courses turned up a number of promising references, including one to a 1926 short-story-writing by mail course, but none of these panned out. Either the material couldn’t be found or once again the date was wrong (Sandy would have been six years old in 1926). I needed something that would capture the optimism still present during the 1930’s, the idealism that was the flip-face of the Depression, even as the curtains were about to open on the terrible flaws in all the major political and social movements. Sandy’s writing had to be of a certain temper and stage.

Every other time I’ve come to a halt in research, accident has led me to just the right book in just the right kind of out-of-the way bookshop. I found Personal Magnetism, so essential to my novel, Visible Worlds, in a second-hand shop in Tofino on the west-coast of Vancouver Island; the old Haunted Books in Market Square yielded up the treasure of the 10 volume 1950’s Arctic Bibliography also of great use in that novel. Somewhere or other I came upon the esoteric Fairy Dictionary I consulted when writing Cat’s Pilgrimage, and I found books on the astrology of cats in Powell’s in Portland. The old Seattle Shorey’s books supplied a large amount of the background material for my first novel; and, more latterly, I’ve found works I need on oddities of seafood and naval history in my local Penelope’s Books. I tend to go about this kind of ‘research’ on auto-pilot, a kind of drift in a general direction, a reach of the hand to the shelf, that works for me.

But, this time, no dice.

Although it’s an apparently different kind of operation altogether, finding the right kind of book through the internet has the same sort of ‘feel’. The work I finally discovered, that exactly fit the bill (who knew such a thing even existed?) I came upon through There were dozens to consider, books listed from all over the world, and nothing fully described enough (how could it be?) to make me sure it was what I needed. I couldn’t—literally– afford to be very often wrong. Nonetheless, I ordered a 1932 book, written by two New York high school educators, called Adventures in Thought and Expression. When I opened it and saw that the frontispiece was Rodin’s emblematic “Hand of God” I knew that my luck had held.

Much else, of course, went into Sandy’s entry into the world of letters when it came down to it, but the atmosphere of Thought and Expression is everywhere. The introduction gives the idea: “The course aims to give the pupils a sound and comprehensive background for understanding and directing their thought and their lives.”

How old-fashioned, how exactly right! As for the desired results? “Writing that is sincere and that represents a very great variety of style and of points of view; Tolerance, breadth of view, sympathy and understanding in the pupils; Recognition by the pupils that expression is of no importance unless one has something to say; Recognition by the pupils that distinctions between poets and artisans, business men and artists, philosophers and scientists, are mainly artificial and, in reality, represent nothing more than differences in points of view. The pupils learn to appreciate each other.”
This was exactly what Sandy Grey needed, and what my novel aimed to be.
Adventures in Thought and Expression, Blohm and Raubicheck, Prentice-Hall (New York), 1932.

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