Jul 16, 2012

What can Coco Chanel teach you about writing?

These days, all you need to get a perfume named after you is a stage presence and a loud song about sexual intercourse. Or something.

We live in vulgar times, but then, all times are vulgar.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, aka Coco Chanel, aka Bane of Biographers*, was born in 1883 to a laundrywoman and an itinerant street vendor. Chanel’s parents were unmarried at the time and the mother’s family bribed the father into marriage when Coco was a year old.
*Chanel made up details about her early years.

Jeanne and Albert – those were their names – would produce five more children until Jeanne died of bronchitis. She was 31, Coco only twelve.

Albert, who was something of a nomad, sent the future fashion designer and her two sisters to live in a Catholic girls’ home, the convent of Aubazine, run by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary.

The Cessart Bridge at Saumur, the town where Coco Chanel was born. Saumur is also famous for a castle,
the Château de Saumur, originally built in the 10th century. It now houses the Museum 
of the Horse, 
as well as the  Musée de la Figurine-Jouet, a collection of old toys and figurines.

Balzac's novel, Eugénie Grandet, is set in Saumur.

At the convent, Coco learned to ply a needle. She became a seamstress. Time and nature were on her side: she began singing in her spare time and drew the attention of rich, powerful men. Chanel collected lovers who turned out to be great friends also: Étienne Balsan, horse rancher, polo player;  “Boy” Capel, also a polo player, who gave Coco’s fashion business an initial boost; Paul Iribe, a designer who died playing tennis as Chanel watched – she would mourn him for years;  then there was Pierre Reverdy, a poet who compiled a number of ‘Chanelisms’; The little orphan girl had a nose for culture, influence and taste.

Coco Chanel was also a racist, violently homophobic, and ashamed of her low birth; it seems that great personalities must include tragic flaws.[1]  

So, what can Coco Chanel teach you about writing a novel, story or play?   
Coco Chanel in 1909
“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Nobody expected Franz Kafka. Or Michelangelo. Or the mastery of fire, to go back a few eras.[2]

The moment of innovation always comes as a shock and the innovator is the first person to experience that shock. “I didn’t know I had it in me” or “I don’t know how I did it” typify that shock.

You know you’ve brought something unique into the world when you can’t really compare it to anything. Those who practice self-censorship can never go beyond imitation. However, I won’t claim that imitation can’t be successful – just look at Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as fan fiction. But what kind of success do you really want to enjoy? Monetary? Artistic? Art is a crapshoot. Hard work is nothing without a little luck but hey, you can make your own luck.

Kafka never made a pile of money. Michelangelo[3] famously took on the Sistine Chapel commission for zero pay on the condition of zero interference. The guy or gal (we can’t know) who built the first controlled fire was just experimenting.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”

Audrey Tautou as Coco in
Coco Before Chanel (2009)
When people realized that the word ‘guru’ was just a word – that they wouldn’t be struck by lightning if they seized it for themselves – they started hawking their pseudo-psycho-spiritual wares to those who still held some reverence for gurus and those with the chutzpah to own that once-lofty title, guru.

Of course, ‘guide’ doesn’t resonate with the atrophied mystical gland of the average first-worlder. ‘Sex guru’ sounds awesome, but ‘sex guide’? That’s something you find in your parents’ closet, buried under shoeboxes of holiday snapshots and moldering issues of Time.

Beware the guru, the monopolist of certainty. Human societies are built on half-truth and misconception; if not for a few brave individuals armed with proverbial hot knives, we’d be drowning in butter.

As a writer, it is your job to doubt everything, even your notion of self, country, family. Lies keep the engine running, truth makes the engine better. Doubt is not a solution but the beginning of method.

You will not be rewarded for doubting.

“Elegance is refusal.”

Chanel didn’t like Hollywood. In Hollywood, a lady must look like two ladies – this was the exact opposite of Chanel’s vision.

Elegance is stopping just short of excess. Using two words, not ten. Thinking a lot, saying a little.

“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.”

What can I add to that? Only that we lie to ourselves a lot, mistaking obdurate walls for the clay of opportunity.

Some difficult paths lead nowhere. You know them in your heart, not always in your brain. I’m not talking about difficulties in your day job; not telling you to quit; what I am saying is, when the day is done, do only what you love to do.


Chanel No. 5, signature fragrance of House of Chanel, was created by Ernest Beaux in 1921. A Time writer in 1953 claimed that Beaux would create perfumes by jotting down formulas, asserting that he already knew what the end result would smell like: It was no different than composing a symphony. 


Karl Lagerfeld, chief designer at Chanel during the 1980s, once dodged a PETA pie that hit Calvin Klein instead. PETA wanted to chastise Lagerfeld for his use of fur, calling him a 'dinosaur designer.'

Chanel started out as a milliner.

[1] I won’t make excuses for Coco Chanel. It’s not like I owe her anything. But we must remember that anti-Semitism and homophobia were not controversial opinions in Europe pre-WWII. Let’s not pretend that we are more civilized and enlightened now, because each era fabricates its bogeymen, and the fabrication is always ridiculous when you hold it up to the twin lights of logic and empathy. We’re not civilized yet, not really.
[2] I mean era in the colloquial sense, rather than the geological.
[3] Did you know Michelangelo thought of Leonardo da Vinci as a sellout and a failure? And he made that opinion known, or we wouldn’t have learned of it. These days, when self-published authors complain that other authors aren’t nice to them, they display historic ignorance. Writers have always berated each other – being in the public arena comes at a price. If we were all terminally nice to each other, culture would die. Have you ever felt insulted? Check out Flavorpill’s 30 harshest author-on-author insults in history and then move on to Chuck Wendig’s 25 things I want to say to so-called aspiring writers.
People must be civil, yes. But no-one has to mollycoddle you on account of your lofty aspirations. The people you think of as titans now? They were often brutal to each other.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

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