No items found.
novel writing process

Writing Like Tolstoy

May 12, 2019
May 12, 2019

Immersive writing and insight are intimately related and inextricably so. This is what Tolstoy shows us. It’s what makes Tolstoy a great writer.

I want to show you what Tolstoy achieved with his writing, how he approached it, and why.

Therein is the whole business of one’s life; to seek out and save in the soul that which is perishing.
—Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief

(My second book This Human Season cites this quotation from Tolstoy at the frontispiece.)

The business of his life, his work, was to honour this passage from the Gospel, which he read and re-read as his favourite book.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
—Matthew 7:5

Seen this way, you can understand the wholeness of his approach to his work, and why the use of the omniscient narrator was critical.

Immersive omniscient detail

The characters are always smiling, frowning, blushing, twitching, fidgeting, touching, kissing, bowing, sobbing, and deconstructing these signs in each other...
—James Meek

In one of his later essays, Tolstoy retells the story of the painter Bryullov, who corrected a student’s sketch. ‘Why you only changed it a tiny bit, but it is quite a different thing,’ the student exclaimed. Bryullov replied: ‘Art begins where that “tiny bit” begins.’

Tolstoy explains:

That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins – where what seem to us minute and infinitesimally small changes occur. True life is not lived where great external changes take place – where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another – it is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.
—Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy traces the infinitesimally small changes of consciousness of so many of his characters using the omniscient narrator God-like voice. The tone is affectionate, occasionally amused, especially in the face of the vacillatory nature of his weathervane character with whom he opens the novel, Stiva Oblonsky.

The narrator is close enough to the characters to rely on them for his existence, but free enough to pass unchallenged judgment on their actions, and to tell us things about them that they don’t know about themselves.
—James Meek

No character is irredeemably bad or consistently good, they all consider a number of possibilities and are capable of spite and decency. Even Levin while out shooting, is pleased to his shame to be cheered to hear that Kitty is unwell. Very few – save for Dolly perhaps – have a more stable moral centre.

The ‘small changes’ offer us an awareness of our own multitudes and contradictions ranging from darkness to lightness, hatred and affection, and lead us towards forgiveness of others. The novel, in Tolstoy’s hands, becomes practical coaching in the Christian spirit. Writing Anna Karenina progressed his own spiritual path.

In Levin’s greatest moment of joy, when accepted by Kitty, Tolstoy writes:

And what he then saw he never saw again. Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth. It all happened at the same time; one of the boys ran after a pigeon and looked smilingly up at Levin; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered up, glittering in the sunshine amid the snow-dust that trembled in the air; from the window came the scent of fresh-baked bread and the loaves were put out. All these things were so unusually beautiful that Levin laughed and cried with joy.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Here is how we find our way back to joy with insight. Tolstoy traces the moment, and the steps to the moment of insight, while also acknowledging that these moments are transient.

What he then saw he never saw again.

Words mark the path, the names of the places on the map and without them, we would forget the places we have been on the moral journey.

I came across the new word ‘leafwhelm’ recently, meaning the impression of being overwhelmed by leaves, particularly in spring in nature. Since learning the word, it comes to me now as I duck in and out of the trees in the woodland on my daily walk. Now I notice the changing season, the changing environment, and every time I use this word, I count that impression upon me, and each impression grows to amount to something.

In Tolstoy’s human world of transience, things fail, and how they fail, how we fail is also minutely accounted for.

He repeated to himself the words with which he had intended to propose; but instead of those words some unexpected thought caused him to say:

‘What difference is there between the white boleti and the birch-tree variety?’

Varenka’s lips trembled with emotion when she replied: ‘There is hardly any difference in the tops, but only in the stems.’

And as soon as those words were spoken, both he and she understood that all was over, and that what ought to have been said would not be said, and their excitement, having reached its climax, began to subside.

‘The stem of the birch-tree boletus reminds one of a dark man’s beard two days old,’ remarked Koznyshev calmly.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

To mitigate what might be exhaustive reading – and writing – the chapters are rather short compared to his nineteenth-century contemporaries.

Write like Tolstoy

A full account of our contradictions

Words peg thoughts and create usable memories and a map to find our way back to insights and build upon them. Those who forget and who forget themselves. Stepan Oblonsky and his sister Anna Karenina are in deep trouble.

No matter how hard Stepan Arkadyevich tried to be a concerned father and husband, he never could remember that he had a wife and children.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Anna has trouble keeping account of who her husband really is as a person.

Where most good writers would see the movement from one state of mind to another as a single step, Tolstoy identifies many more steps along the way. When we read his descriptions, we recognize we have experienced such infinitesimally small steps even if we would not otherwise remember them. We grant the plausibility of each small step he describes and so find ourselves at the final one.
—Gary Saul Morson


By way of example

In this passage in chapter 17, we can see all of this at work. The living detail, the intimate reflexive thought process of Vronsky is detailed here by a narrator who accounts for Vronsky’s true – naked or un-worded – feelings.

A dashing conductor jumped off, blowing his whistle, and after him the impatient passengers began to step down one by one: an officer of the guards, keeping himself straight and looking sternly around; a fidgety little merchant with a bag, smiling merrily; a muzhik with a sack over his shoulder. Vronsky, standing beside Oblonsky, looked over the carriages and the people getting off and forgot his mother entirely. What he had just learned about Kitty had made him excited and happy. His chest involuntarily swelled and his eyes shone. He felt himself the victor.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

In this passage, Vronsky is at his most proud, and his self-deception is described by Tolstoy pertaining to his own mother, who has a reputation similar to that with which Vronsky will endow Anna who he is just seconds away from meeting for the first time. The passage continues:

‘Countess Vronsky is in this compartment,’ said the dashing conductor, coming up to Vronsky. The conductor’s words woke him up and forced him to remember his mother and the forthcoming meeting with her.

In his soul he did not respect her and, without being aware of it, did not love her, though by the notions of the circle in which he lived, by his upbringing, he could not imagine to himself any other relation to his mother than one obedient and deferential in the highest degree, and the more outwardly obedient and deferential he was, the less he respected and loved her in his soul.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

We see and we are seen: in-sight

For Dostoyevsky, the most significant scene of the book is where Anna is on her bed, possibly dying, with her lover and husband at her side and reverses her opinion of Karenin.

But the scene at the horse race is very powerful indeed. It’s here that Vronsky’s story seems to end as he faces himself, standing in the sight of the horse he rode to its death.

Owing to Vronsky’s awkward movement she had dropped her hind legs and broken her back. But he only understood this much later. Now he only saw that Makhotin was quickly galloping away, while he, reeling, stood alone on the muddy, stationary ground; before him, breathing heavily, lay Frou-Frou, who, bending her head toward him, gazed at him with her beautiful eyes. Still not understanding what had happened, Vronsky pulled at the reins. The mare again began to struggle like a fish, causing the flaps of the saddle to creak; she got her front legs free, but unable to lift her hind-quarters, struggled and immediately again fell on her side.

To his regret he felt that he was himself sound and unhurt. The mare had broken her back, and it was decided to shoot her. Vronsky was unable to reply to questions or to speak to anyone. He turned away and, without picking up the cap that had fallen from his head, left the racecourse without knowing where he was going. He felt miserable. For the first time in his life he experienced the worst kind of misfortune – one that was irretrievable, and caused by his own fault.

Yashvin overtook him with his cap and led him home, and in half an hour Vronsky came to himself. But the memory of that steeplechase long remained the most painful and distressing memory of his life.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I reject the idea that the horse (the ‘mare’) stands for Anna. Not at all. Too simple.

What’s important here is that the horse is a horse and that this is that moment of insight available to all and close at hand in which we are seen and see ourselves. As Vronksy is seen by the horse, so he sees himself anew.

The eyes of nature are upon us once we enter fully into this vital relationship within our life experience, in which we see and are seen.

The horse ‘gazed at him with her beautiful eyes.’

To exist is to be seen, to be seen is to be held to account, to write is to record the accounting of others, to offer an accounting of others helps us learn to account for ourselves.

Being seen we shudder, which is the right dressing down to prepare us to be humbled for what happens next. Seeing back, without taking flight, we apprehend the numinous. We are in the presence of the divine (or life’s force or Nature).

For those on the Ninety Day Novel Class, you will find the moral journey of the novel in the paragraph above (the Novelry Five Fs ®).

The Classic Storytelling Class students will appreciate the journey to the awe-inspiring numinous moment of great works of fiction and fantasy. (This is self-understanding – or in-sight – in adult literary fiction.) Often the reader is offered a mock version of the same. The reader is shown the falsehood, illusion or human conceit, as in The Great Gatsby or in younger readers books, The Land of Oz or Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In Anna Karenina, Anna herself is the false front, the wrong road. This was Tolstoy’s intention as he set aside all roads to ‘Anna’ in himself, and took a more spiritual path towards the truly divine.

It is by treading a path in which every small stone is turned over, every sight, sound and step accounted for that the pilgrim reader and writer approach the divine, and it is forgiveness which comes as a thunderbolt. This can only happen through forensic accounting of what we see. When we gain insight it is a mystical almost externalised business, as if being seen by another. As if we have an audience, or readers reading us...

The masterly leitmotif

As a bonus prize for readers and writers, Tolstoy leaves markers (road signs) to help us find our way back to moments of significance. We explore the device of the leitmotif in our Ninety Day Novel Class.

In Anna Karenina, we have a leitmotif of a peasant (a muzhik) with a sack. Vronsky watching the passengers disembark from the train notes ‘a peasant with a sack over his shoulder’. A similar figure recurs when Anna returns a few days later to St Petersburg. The figure occurs in both Vronksy’s and Anna’s dreams. We see him again as Anna heads towards her suicide. Nabokov explored this presence in detail and concluded that the peasant represented the personification of her sin.

I don’t think he was quite there. I think the muzhik is the reaper, the aspect of the divine which reaps and combines life into life again, life renewed. The ongoing harvest.

As you read in the last post, the work became increasingly autobiographical with the use of Levin as a spokesman for Tolstoy.

At the moment of Levin’s joyous insight into his purpose, which comes towards the end of the book, we read that his blinding insight was given to him by a muzhik.

... the meaning of my impulses is so clear to me that I constantly live by it, and was amazed and glad when a muzhik voiced it for me: to live for God, for the soul. ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. I’ve understood that power which not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I am freed from deception, I have found the master.’

Access to the divine is not via something invisible or unknowable, Tolstoy tells us. It’s by seeing what we don’t see, and being seen back. His work guides readers through this by entering into the heads of many characters’ experiences, and our advantage is that we can go back through the work and see again what those living miss. In this way, we can only gain in-sight into ourselves, more powerfully as readers of fiction, than we can in our own daily lives.

To do

If you’re confused or resistant to the idea that immersive writing leading to insight results in anything amounting to spiritual growth, I’d suggest you simply consider making your writing more detailed and nuanced. Apply a forensic accounting of your characters’ behaviours, and possibly thoughts as a writing practice to simply see where it takes you. Go deeper within. Why not try one of our creative writing courses to lend a helping hand?

If ‘story’ is the heart of the matter, insight is the soul of writing. Approach it by foot, as a pilgrim.

Happy writing.

Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team