How to Learn Writing Skills from the Best Authors: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante
By Christine Kidney
Even though writers are always saying that reading is the best inspiration for writing, that inspiration can feel very unspecific and we tend to simply admire our favourite writers rather than being able to really look at how they’re deploying their skills to tell their stories.
I’m going to explore how we can read for writing – what do successful writers do well? And what do they do differently?
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third in Elena Ferrante’s series, which charts the fictional Elena’s friendship with Lila, her friend from a poor neighbourhood in Naples. This friendship is addictive – it nourishes and cuts deep. However the Ferrante series has completely gripped me to the point where I feel just as claustrophobic as her main character. I am hemmed in but addicted to these books. They have the greedy lure of the best trashy fiction and the writing is so astute, forensic and honest that the words can take your breath away in shock and recognition.
I want to explore a couple of ideas that spring to mind on reading her fiction that might help in your writing:
1. The author is anonymous – she has closely guarded her identity over the years. Her main character is Elena, the author’s pseudonymous first name, leading me to think that this is closely autobiographical. The questions, then, are these:
- How anonymous are you able to be when you write?
- How do you censor your thoughts and your writing? From an imagined readership to your own over-critical voice; perhaps from your parents to the people you may be writing about.
- How careful are we to protect identities?
- How false are we about our own voice and the need to impress? Think perhaps about books that are fiercely honest – Alice Monroe’s stories, Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series – and books that control and seduce. What can you write? What are you prepared to write? How can you bring that honesty and control together?
- What would you write if you knew your book would be anonymous? Perhaps this would get us to the stories we really wish to write.
2. The book is a story about two friends – Lila, who is naturally brilliant (the first novel is called My Brilliant Friend) and the narrator, Elena, who portrays herself as almost feeding off her friend’s brilliance parasitically. Lila is the great force, Elena has just learnt how to pass for brilliant. Although it reads so convincingly about a real friendship, I can’t help wondering if Lila is the alternative self of the author – that Lila’s narrative might be her alternative history. The natural, instinctive self, if you like (Lila), and the socially adaptive self (Elena). It leads me to ask:
- How do you write convincing characters? Can you ‘feel’ them? Can they spread out and expand into the role you’ve assigned them?
- How do you write about difference? Are you one person or potentially many? Can you mine authentically for that difference?
- Are you prepared honestly to imagine being the worst character you can bear to write about? We need only to look to Shakespeare for advice on that.
Elena Ferrante’s last novel of the series, The Story of the Lost Child, is just out. I dread what that title might suggest and I think I should pepper my reading with alternatives. But I won’t. Just as children find a book they love and gobble up a series, we are being treated to a similarly voracious experience.