The Patricia Cornwell Story

Here’s an excellent profile of crime novelist Patricia Cornwell that will probably tell you a few things about the woman you didn’t know, and give you a glimpse at the way her work has had to change over the last twenty-five years.

One is tempted after reading it to invent an aphorism:  You are what you write.  That’s largely true in Cornwell’s case, but it is not everywhere and always true.  She may write out of the traumas of her early life, but other writers do not have to.  Robert Bloch, for instance, the author of Psycho and many other creepy stories about homicidal maniacs and similarly bizarre persons, was reputed to be a pleasant, mentally-balanced man who simply had a gift for writing about those who weren’t so balanced.

Change the aphorism:  You are what you can imagine.  That gets a little closer to the truth.  A man can imagine himself being a homicidal maniac, but that doesn’t make him one.  What we have to be able to do as writers is access those feelings without being controlled by them.  It’s those feelings–of anger, frustration, fear–that give our writing its humanity, its depth.  Even the best of us have those feelings; we’ve been dealing with them, both men and women, for thousands of years in our evolution, and given the immense struggles we’ve had to survive and carve out a civilization in a multitude of hostile environments it’s not surprising that any of us retain virulent forms of those feelings.

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2 thoughts on “The Patricia Cornwell Story

  1. ramonawray says:

    I believe it takes incredible courage to write by tapping into personal experience. Of course, it differs from person to person, but as a matter of course, catharsis burns. I have repeatedly reached the conclusion that I can’t do it, which is sad, because the best stories are in fact rooted in that which the writer has experienced first hand. This, however, is not to say that writing what you can imagine is without merit. As a fantasy aficionado, I’d be crushed if such stories weren’t available. Reading something that was created based on experience usually forces one to look inward, wheres reading fantasy for instance pushed one the other way, inspiring the mind to expand and consider things beyond the sphere of the mundane.

  2. Most thoughtful. You are correct, I believe: it does take courage. It also takes a particular kind of talent to transform our personal experience into a form that a general audience can use, lest our fiction turn into narrow autobiography.

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