On Becoming a Graham Greene§
by Russell Dyer
published: october 30, 2007; revised: september 03, 2017; readers in past month: 111
In recent months, I’ve made great progress in my fiction writing. I’ve been pushing myself emotionally and have made some leaps in my writing abilities. I’ve mentioned this in previous postings of my web log. I’ve also made progress by continuing to read Graham Greene’s novels. I’ve learned more about him and his style of writing novels from doing reviews and analyses of them. I know it’s presumptuous or flattering myself, but I feel as though I’m becoming a Graham Greene. I don’t know that I will ever be as good of a writer as him. However, I’m starting to realize that he wasn’t an artist, he was a good writer. Shakespeare was an artist. Greene just did a good job and that’s achievable.
It’s well known that Greene was a disciplined writer who had a daily word-count goal for each morning. He wrote in his novel The Honorary Consul about a novelist who had this to say about his writing habits:
I write five hundred words a day after my breakfast… You see I have a daemon where others have a talent. Mind you I envy them their talent… You cannot conceive how much I suffer when I write. I have to force myself day after day to sit down pen in hand and I struggle for expression… Such a daily agony and the result — five hundred words a day. A very small catch (45).
It seems obvious that this is Graham speaking about himself. So when I say that he wasn’t an artist but did a good job as a writer, I think Greene might have agreed with me.
I know that I’ve visited this theme before, but I’m trying to make a couple of subtle points I did not understand before. Certainly, I don’t think that I should develop disciplined writing habits like Greene — I’m no creature of habit. However, my point is that good novels can be achieved without necessarily being gifted as some think is required. Yes, being talented like Shakespeare at easily turning beautiful verses is wonderful. However, that talent and that style is not all there is in writing. What’s encouraging about Greene’s comments, and what I’m discovering in dissecting his novels and understanding his style, is that writing a good novel as Greene has done many times is possible through careful and hard work. Certainly hard work alone will not do it, and some inclination towards writing, that is to say some talent is required. It’s not an all or none situation. Given some natural writing abilities, I believe that good novel writing can be learned and achieved. I find that encouraging.
My second point in support of my development towards becoming a Graham Greene is that as I’m pushing myself to be more daring in my writing, as I mock myself and my writings regarding the naiveness of my protagonists, I am not only learning more about myself and growing as a person, I’m becoming a maturer writer. I’ve commented in the past few postings here about some unhappinesss and misery I have gone through in recent weeks in a relationship with a woman. I mentioned that I have lost a sense of boundaries and that I have been broken of my attitudes about relationships. In the past year or two I have also been broken of my attitudes about life and expectations about it. I said to someone who was commenting about the difficult choices I have had to make over the past few weeks, Welcome to the complexities of real adult life. As people and even as adults, we can hide ourselves from the complexities of adult life: ignore how we hurt others, ignore options available to us, ignore our true feelings, ignore many choices that we could make, that we and others do make. We can confine ourselves, our thoughts, and our lives within certain imaginary boundaries and gain a sense of security with those boundaries and even convince ourselves that life is better with them. We can do this by following a philosophy or a moral code and live stiff and content lives in blissful ignorance. After having tried so hard for decades as I have done to be good, to do what others expected me to do, to follow code after code and still ending up miserable as a result, I have lost confidence in the ways handed down to me. The call of Tradition loses it’s energy and the music falls flat. I left the Garden of Eden; I wandered out somehow. Now that I’ve left, any attempts that I make to return seems pointless. I see others high on life in their innocence and ignorance, and I sometimes envy them and long for that stable feeling, that structure, those mental boundaries. Unfortunately, I cannot fool myself any longer. It is this sense of reality, this sense of nakedness that I think Greene achieved at an age younger than me and he wrote about. It is for this reason that through coupling my life with my writing as I have been doing and learning how to express my experiences in fiction and in my musings here that I say that I am becoming a Graham Greene. I’m not saying that people won’t be able to distinguish my novels from his. I’m saying that I am persuing a similar genre and following similar paths as did he.
One of the attractions of Greene’s novels is his depiction of people that do things that we don’t usually talk about: adultery, deceit, betrayal, hatred, insecurities, bad parenting, and many other natural and common shortcomings of people. We all have flaws that are unacceptable and we all have experienced them in others. When someone else abuses us in a socially unacceptable way, our tendancy is to condemn them and their actions, to be abhorred by them. Perhaps it’s because we don’t realize that their actions are normal or maybe it’s because we don’t want to accept their actions as normal. Conversely, when we do something wrong (e.g., cheat on our spouse or lover, hurt someone we love) we hope that no one knows or if they discover our misdeed, we hope that they will keep it quiet. We view such persons who do these things as being bad or despicable. The reality is that they’re just people and not bad all the way through. Greene doesn’t try to champion them, but only to make them understandable. More importantly, he doesn’t depict only supposedly fringe people (e.g., murderers, criminals, prostitutes, adulters, etc.), but he also presents supposedly normal people who are no different. From Greene’s perspective, his characters are all normal, all valid, and they are all despicable from a rigid perspective, and therefore are all the same.
I’ve long had an openness towards others and could always see good in everyone and did not believe in condemning anyone. Related to this, for a few years I worked with the homeless and poor through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Besides those days as a charity worker, I have had many encounters with fringe people, people with which normal people would not usually speak. As I have suffered through more conflicts and problems in my own life and have done more things outside of my old boundaries, I’m becoming more despicable based on the standards by which I used to live and judge others. The person I was when I was in my early twenties would think very badly of the person I have become, that I am now. This seems to have been what Greene learned as well: he learned that he was not good by normal standards, but he also knew what was in his heart. From this deeper understanding of himself, he knew that he was not a bad person. By showing what’s in the heart of his characters, he seems to hope we will see that they are not truly bad. In this way, he stands in the midst of them and by contrast they make him acceptable, make him normal. Perhaps this was his hope: to make himself understood and be accepted. These are the kind of characters I want to write about, the characters about which I have begun to write in my latest novel and my last couple of stories. This is the kind of writer I find myself striving to become: a Graham Greene.