A Writer to Emulate

Monday, December 1, 2014

I usually avoid the quizzes that appear on my Facebook feed, but once in a while I give in. On Wednesday, I took a quiz to determine which classic literary character I resembled most. The answer? Jo March.
Jo March was Louisa May Alcott’s depiction of herself in Little Women. Both the character and her model were independent women who loved to write. They could also be outspoken at times. Those characteristics apply to me, too. So yes, I’m honored to be identified with Jo March.

But you don’t have to be independent or outspoken to emulate Louisa May Alcott. You don’t even have to be a woman. Louisa is a model for all writers.
The main thing I want to emulate is Louisa’s ability to teach without preaching. I hate it when a novelist lectures me. Sometimes I finish the book and sometimes I don’t, but even if I read it through to the end, I’m less likely to pick up something else by that author.

Louisa took a different approach. She taught, but she wrapped the lesson inside the story. Her approach was analogous to hiding healthy vegetables in children’s food.
Yes, Louisa did sometimes use narrative to summarize her teachings. That was the style of the day, and most writers can’t get away with it now. But Little Women and other books by Louisa May Alcott are still popular in spite of those narrative summaries. Why? I think it is because the narrative flows with the story, much like a leaf attached to a branch floating down a river. If the story hadn’t attracted and retained the reader’s attention, the lesson would have gone unnoticed as well.

Louisa described this phenomenon in one of her narrative summaries. In this passage from An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly doesn’t like the way her friend Tom treats his sisters. So Polly invites Tom to her house, where he sees how Polly’s brother treats her.
[E]veryone knows that persuasive influences are better than any amount of moralizing. Neither Polly nor Will tried to do anything of the sort, and that was the charm of it. Nobody likes to be talked to, but nobody can resist the eloquence of unconscious preaching. With all his thoughtlessness, Tom was quick to see and feel these things, and was not spoilt enough yet to laugh at them. The sight of Will and Polly’s simple affection for one another reminded him of a neglected duty so pleasantly that he could not forget it. [Emphasis in original.]

So learn your own lesson from Louisa May Alcott. Don’t preach a sermon.
Tell a story instead.


The picture at the head of this post shows Jo March busy writing. It was drawn by Frank T. Merrill and was included in the original edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 


Linda Glaz said...

Nicely said! Teach without preaching...

Caroline Ill said...

I am glad I indirectly inspired your blog post!

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