Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. Think we can learn something about writing from him? May-be.
If you fancy yourself a novelist and haven’t read Moby Dick, that’s like a drummer never having listened to Keith Moon or Travis Barker, or an artist never having gazed at a Picasso or a Monet. Suck it up and pick up, Nook, or Kindle that Top 5 all-time classic novel. Easily Top 5. Maybe Top 2.
And that’s just the big Moby. Melville wrote lots of great fiction.
Here’s a short list of some takeaways from Melville for you to dwell on. Deep stuff.
Eschatology never had a better frontman
It’s all about radicality. You like radical, right? Who doesn’t? Everybody does. If they say they don’t, they don’t know what it means.
Life, death, God. Beginnings, endings, eternity, infinity, everything, nothing. That’s eschatology. That’s Melville.
Only the biggest themes and subjects for him:
- A great white whale with at least 25 possible meanings (read the chapter specifically devoted to him).
- “The universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”
- A megalomaniacal Faustian Ahab, who pursues and attacks the baddest creature on earth because he’d “strike the sun if it insulted him.”
Look around you. Find the big subjects. Match them with big characters, big action, big settings. Make your protagonist a cosmic seeker, for whom “Failure is the true test of greatness,” said Melville. “Think big,” as Donald Trump advises. Write big like Melville does.
Plot stories around the “inscrutable alternatives.”
Oppositions, ambiguities, ironies, and multiple undecidable choices make for great conflicts.
Who do you know that’s a big personality or has done big, crazy things? Who is that person’s opposite, foil, enemy, or antagonist? Pit them against each other on a sprawling, stage; a set with no boundaries.
In Typee, one of his novels before Moby Dick, Melville painted a vivid picture of the savage cannibals on a South Sea island. He’d actually been there. So he knew what he was talking about when he depicted them as virtuous and happy. As far better people than the “civilized” explorers who landed on their island and got themselves eaten alive. Talk about an “inscrutable alternative.”
Where have you been? There’s 8 million stories in your own naked city. What have you done? Plenty. But you don’t want to write about it. Why not? Afraid of spilling the beans on yourself? Spill the damn beans.
Empty your secret closets. Just change the names. Tweak the jobs, the setting, little details. You’ll be all right. Everybody’s a fine young (or old) cannibal, in one way or another.
We all have stories we don’t want to tell. And those are the exact ones we should tell. Because they’re damn good stories.
There’s no better story than good guys vs. bad guys
In Billy Budd, Melville pits the innocent Billy against the evil Claggert, who wants Billy dead just because everybody likes him.
Doesn’t that ring a bell? I can barely estimate how many twisted demons disguised as human beings that I’ve run up against in my life who wanted me dead just because someone else liked me.
Queequeg, a tattooed from head to toe (he makes Jesse James look like a Baptist preacher) cannibal harpooner in Moby Dick is the nicest guy in the book. Even nicer than the innocent white boy Ishmael, who becomes his best bud on the whaling ship.
When one after another “civilized” Christian insults, rejects, and condemns him, Ishmael defends him. But Queequeg’s above and beyond their pathetic bigotry: he reacts to every curse with calm aplomb.
See, he can throw a harpoon 40 feet into a whale’s eye. And kill that badass whale. Don’t mess with nice guys. Or their friends. The Big Q’s got Ishmael’s back.
Couple casting. That’s what a novelist does. Cast inscrutable opposites together. Lethal Weapon, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Mutt & Jeff, Thelma & Louise, Huck & Jim, Jack & Rose, Bonnie & Clyde. The list is endless…
Make your characters allegorical
Again, think big. Create characters that stand for more than just themselves. Symbolize them.
Take Ahab. He’s Faust. Who was Faust? Dante’s dude who sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of power, fame, fortune, women, and fun. He wanted to be God.
Ahab played God. He went out way too far, all around the world, into unfamiliar oceans, chasing the glory and revenge of killing the whale that had bitten off his leg. Crazy dude. Just like the crazy parts in you and me—the blind pride, the utter foolishness, the inflamed desire for revenge.
Ishmael is Everyman. Not bad, not perfect, no genius, no great shakes, but not a waste of space either.
He’s drifting through life like his namesake in the Old Testament: the son of Abraham and Hagar who was driven from his home and wandered in barren lands. Not so sure of things; a little bit lost; a little of everything but not a lot of anything.
And then there’s Queequeg—the Noble Savage. The personification of the question: just what is a “civilized” human being, anyway? Tell me you don’t know some noble savages. If you don’t, you haven’t been around much. And if you haven’t been around much, exactly what do you think you can write about? Not having been around much? That’s exciting.
Here’s a plan: Write about spiritualism vs. materialism
We’re not talking religion or going to church vs. making money and living the high life, necessarily. It’s beyond that.
It’s eschatological: all matter exists to represent some idea. Like Plato in the cave seeing his shadow from the fire light cast upon the wall, Ahab knows that everything’s an illusion, really.
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks….Who’s over me? Truth has no confines.”
Even people who haven’t been around much, have at least been around their own minds. It’s a cosmos in there.
And when you use that cosmos and really look for stories to tell, first do this: turn your back to the fire. Turn away from the light. You might the real truth, the deep meaning, in darkness, in the shadowland that lies behind the story, the people, the events.
Look at it this way: everything’s a re-presentation of the ideal. What ‘s real and what have you just made up in that mind of yours? Can you put your typing finger smack dab in the middle of truth? Nail it? Rip off people’s masks? Expose them for what they are?
If you can, you’ve got yourself a novel.