Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Too Nice

There's a review of a new production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" in the latest New Yorker, and it got me thinking about the craft of writing, and especially the brutal honesty required to really achieve something with writing.

Williams wrote the play partly with his mother in mind. An earlier story version fell sort of flat, writes Hilton Als, but by the time Williams wrote the play, "he had got enough technical distance from his mother to know how to craft a play that was partly fueled by her ungovernable talk -- talk that he used to help shape the poetic betrayal he had to write in order to become himself."

Don't you love that? Poetic betrayal.

Later, Als mentioned the character of Jim, the Gentleman Caller, who "can't break out of his niceness to achieve anything truly great."

Both of these lines resonate with me because they make me consider my own shortcomings as a writer. I haven't written fiction since college, but in anything I write, I'm always concerned with how it will be received. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or ruffle feathers or be unfair or reveal anything too private. This has always been true -- even when I was reporting for newspapers I tried hard to be fair and as kind as possible, without betraying my journalistic purpose, to sources and subjects of articles.

But to be a great writer -- to make people draw in their breath with the shock of recognition -- you have to be willing to say things that have consequences. You have to be willing to dig deep into raw personal experience, both yours and that of the people around you. Some of them might get upset. But what results, hopefully, is art, work that opens up readers and, as Als said of Williams, allows the writer to more fully become him- or herself.

I can't break out of my niceness to achieve anything truly great. That's my problem in a nutshell. Will I ever become myself?

Even in life, I'm just too damn nice. As a young person, I aspired to niceness -- I didn't understand why some people talked down about it, preferring the dangerous, the dark, the edgy. As I get older, though, I see how hollow nice can be, how unrevealing, how unremarkable. How nice.

Of course, becoming oneself has its costs, too. It mired Williams in a life of depression and substance abuse. Truth may be the stuff of art, but it's no picnic.

(Photo: Leadenhall Market in central London.)


  1. Wow. This post really has me thinking. I wrote less after I became a mother because the things I could have revealed about myself would have consequences for them. Or so I thought. My mother, however. Always surprised me by how much she was willing to accommodate when it came to my writing truth. Niceness isn't necessarily an obstacle. It does help to write as if no on will ever see what you're writing. You can decide about sharing it later.

  2. Sorry it's late here and I'm not really being very coherent. But there's so much to chew on in this post.

  3. Ah, but Steve, maybe that's just it: you are just an inherently nice person and that *IS* who you are.

    There is no shame in being a nice person. Frankly I'd rather be nice than to live life on the edge all the time. I do see what you are saying though.

  4. I've always been blown away by people who can write as if their words would just be taken and accepted without anger or horror or resentment.
    I, too, am nice. Or try to be. And I agree with you- niceness does not a great author make. But what can we do? We are who we are.
    I think that Tennessee Williams had to be very, very brave. He had to break down many walls. Familial, societal, to truly say what he needed to say.
    I agree with Angella- we should write as if we will never, ever share what we have written and when it is done, then we can decide what to do with it.

  5. When I first started blogging I tried to be anonymous for just that reason. My inner life feels so different from what I let show on the outside. Which is why I get confused when people talk about how nice I am - ha!

    It's one of the reasons I write poetry - my dark side can have free reign there & we'll just put it down to artistic license :)

  6. What's wrong with being nice? There's far to little of it these days. It may not produce greatness but there is a great deal of comfort in it.

  7. I think that there are waves of niceness- disillusionment, sarcasm and witty reality...but you, as a really nice person, live in a very polite nation- you do well! I have viewed niceness and politeness as being not entirely honest, superficial...but safe and comfortable- Acceptance is a big deal in our tribe! And some folks, like you, are just genuine , thoughtful, sincere, dependable. You can not go wrong!

  8. Thinking about writing, how to write, whether to write and what to write just about paralyzes me. So, I just write.

  9. Angella: That's really good advice. In journalism you learn to write for your readers -- think about what would interest them, how much background explanation they need, etc. But personal writing is admittedly different.

    Lynne: There's no shame in it, but there is a certain blandness, you know?

    Ms. Moon: For his era, Williams HAD to be brave. I don't think your writing is overly nice (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, ha!). You tell it like it is. In fact, that's one of the things I most admire about your blog.

    Bug: There is definitely an advantage to anonymity, though my experience with the Internet is that you can never remain completely anonymous for long. Someone will figure out who you are!

    Ellen: I don't mean to disparage niceness altogether. I DO think in terms of personal interaction we need more of it! It just doesn't push any boundaries. Which is why it's nice. It is not the stuff of art.

    Linda Sue: Britain is indeed a "nice nation," though the British simply couch a lot of their darkness in humor and faux niceness.

    Elizabeth: Indeed, too much thought CAN be paralyzing. I think we have to consider the effects of our writing on others, but maybe we ought not consider it TOO much. Where that balance is, that line, I am not sure.