As many of you know, there are many times that I like to fancy myself a wordsmith. However, it is a rare day when I actually practice this skill that I like to believe that I possess.
I often hear the advice that you should write what you know. I used to not believe in this advice because who can possibly know about unicorns and wizards and aliens. But as time has marched along I have realized that the reason that a person must write what they know is because the only way to be a great writer is to write truth. The only way to write truth is to write what you know. Perhaps this is why almost all fantasy and science fiction novels are terrible.
To know me is to know that my 2nd Favorite thing on the radio is the Writer’s Almanac. I’ve lifted a bit of Tuesday’s Writer’s Almanac on Tolstoy. Tolstoy is the email name of choice for my friend Derrick, but he also wrote the following great line:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I don’t know that I believe that this statement is true or not, but it is a great line. When I heard Garrison Keillor read this line it occurred to me that if I ever was to write anything great or true, I should start by writing about my family and our convoluted history.
Don’t panic. I’m not going to do that, but it is an idea.
The Tolstoy story is kind of a mixture of sadness and beauty as well. I think that is the way most family stories are in actuality. Most families are not necessarily happy or unhappy, but a mixture of both. Joy and tragedy.
It’s the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy born on his family’s estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). He led a wild life as a young man. Then in his mid-30s, he decided that it was time to get married.
He began spending a lot of time with a friend who had three available daughters, and everyone expected him to propose to the oldest. But he found himself falling in love with the less attractive but more intelligent middle daughter, Sophia. The closer he got to making a proposal, however, the more panicked he felt. He could hardly think about anything else, and he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go through with it. He wrote his marriage proposal in a letter, but he couldn’t bring himself to send it. He kept it in his pocket for 24 hours. He finally got up the courage to go to Sophia’s house, but he couldn’t even speak. So he just handed her the letter and walked away.
That night Tolstoy suddenly realized that what he really wanted in a wife was someone with whom he could share his most private thoughts, and he decided that if he was going to marry this girl, he would have to let her read his diary. So they set the date for the wedding a week later, and during that week Tolstoy gave Sophia his diary to read. She was excited at first, but by the time she finished reading she was in tears, horrified by his descriptions of brothels and his affairs with peasant girls. Tolstoy asked if she forgave him for his past, and she said she did. He said that she could call off the wedding if she wanted to, but it was impossible to do so because so many people already knew about the proposal.
The marriage was not particularly happy for Sophia. She’d grown up in a cosmopolitan, aristocratic world, and after marrying Tolstoy, she had to live on a rural estate where her husband lived almost like a peasant. His house was extraordinarily simple, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor. He even wore peasant clothes, when he wasn’t entertaining guests.
But for Tolstoy, the early years of his marriage were some of the happiest of his life. The regularity of married life let him settle down to work more steadily than ever before. And in the midst of that happiness, he wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1863). It was the longest and most ambitious novel he’d ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. When he would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. Even he couldn’t read his own handwriting. She ultimately copied by hand the 1400-page manuscript for War and Peace (1863) four times.
While he was working on War and Peace, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old-fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted. In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery.
That novel was Anna Karenina (1877), in which the story of the romance between Konstantin Levin and a young woman named Kitty was based almost entirely on Tolstoy’s own marriage. When it was published, most critics said Anna Karenina was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The part about her copying War and Peace by hand four times just blows my mind. I hardly ever write by hand any longer and the last time I sat down to write somebody a letter, my hand starting cramping on the 2nd page. That was two years ago. I can’t imagine how bad it would be by now.