Over the holidays I recalled many Christmases past celebrated with family, some present, some, sadly, gone. The phrase “Christmas past” moved me to watch the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” It weaves the story about how Charles Dickens suffered through a grueling writing process to pen and publish his now famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” The movie re-enacts Christmases Past, Present, and Future delivering their messages to Scrooge.
What fascinated me was Dickens’s tortured efforts to write truths and still appeal to his readers.
In Victorian times workhouses and debtors’ prisons threatened many people, young children were sold on the street as drudges, and most of the public turned a blind eye to the misery. Dickens saw or heard about such things every day as he wandered about London. He collected comments he heard, horrors he observed, even recorded unusual surnames and peoples’ quirks in a notebook he carried. He used what he saw and heard about him in his stories. All this fodder swirled around in his head. In writing his Christmas story, Dickens pointed out all the cruelty and sordidness of London life, poured his anger and sadness into his words, to force his readers to recognize and empathize with the miserable. In the end, he provided hope by showing skinflint Scrooge could change and help his fellowman.
Many writers gather words, phrases, and names to use in their writing. A writer friend once said he goes out to talk with friends, to stimulate his writing juices, but then returns to his desk to be a man alone with his thoughts and a blank screen to fill. Most writers do. And like Dickens, writers hope to blend their emotional memories into their art.
Besides everyday interactions, writers read to gather facts as well as emotional memories. Here are a few books I’ve read that stimulated my writing with new ideas and facts.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer – fed my interest in the natural world and ways people once used what they found in nature
The Way of the Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail by Derek Lundy – the subtitle tells it all
The Overstory by Richard Powell – an imaginative, emotional connection to the natural world
Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City by Gary Kamiya – a step back into various time periods of San Francisco’s past by the well-known chronicler of its history