What Can We Learn about Writing from Flaubert’s Letters?

In short? That even talented writers suffer. A lot.

When we are trying to find wisdom in order to learn to write well, we usually get Stephen King’s On Writing and some other books. A less straightforward way would be to look at the notes or letters of writers. The Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas-Llosa is a loyal follower of Gustave Flaubert, the french writer that is known as the precursor of the modern novel. Vargas-Llosa has said that after reading Flaubert’s letters he realized that with work, insistence and perseverance one can make up for the lack of talent.

Below I share some of the most interesting passages that I found in Flaubert’s correspondence (Steegmuller, 1980) at the time he was writing his masterpiece: Madame Bovary. Most of these passages come from letters addressed to his friend and lover Louise Colet, with whom Flaubert had a very strange relationship (but that is ‘harina de otro costal‘). Flaubert’s sentences in those letters show the process of writing the best sentences one could write. We usually assume that sentences flow out of talented writers in an effortless way. However, reading Flaubert’s letters we can see how one of the best writers struggles when trying to produce the written perfection.

It all started in September in 1851. Back then he wrote to Louise Colet:

Last night I began my novel. Now I foresee difficulties of style, and they terrify me. It is no small thing to be simple.

September 20, 1851

A month after he began Madame Bovary he says that he was enjoying the challenge of writing with a style that was foreign to him.

I am finding it very hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head…This makes me so desperate that I enjoy it considerable…A fortnight from now I hope to be in gear, but the colors I am working with are so new to me that I keep staring at them in astonishment.

October 23, 1851

A year later, he describes a stage in which he felt he was making no progress at all.

How I wish it were five or six months from now! I would be over the worst—the parts where I find myself least productive: that is, where the idea must be struck most persistently in order to force it to yield return.

September 4, 1852

In another letter he tells Colet how he is giving up his entire life to work on just one page of the book.

Last week I spent five days writing one page, and I dropped everything else for it—my Greek, my English; I gave myself up to it entirely. What worries me in my book is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however, that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is right it can be done. I now have fifty pages in a row without a single event.

 

January 15, 1853

And even though he was working hard, he reveals that he is insecure about the quality of his work. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to learn the immediate impact of Madame Bovary.

Will what I have written be good? I have no idea.

December 23, 1853

Finally, in one of his last letters to Louise Colet in 1854, Flaubert recapitulate how intense the process had been.

Next September it will be three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (especially when the style is one which expresses my personality so little as that of the Emperor of China), living continuously with the same characters, in the same surroundings, clobbering oneself to maintain the same illusion.

We would expect that this level of perfectionism should produce some damage on one’s well-being. What you would not expect, however, is that your own mother would be able to describe that damage in such an eloquent way. In a letter to one of his closest friends, Flaubert shares his mother’s assessment.

‘Your mania for sentences’, my mother said, ‘has dried up your heart.’

September, 1855

Flaubert’s correspondence shows us that writing is hard even for talented individuals. More important, the correspondence also shows us that if you achieve written perfection, then you might want to be careful with your heart.

References

Steegmuller, F. (1980). “The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857.” Cambridge: Belknap.

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