Saturday, March 5, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at age 69, painted ...Image via Wikipedia

Brief Biographical notes

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), German poet, novelist, playwright, courtier, and philosopher, was born in Frankfurt am Main. Influenced and encouraged by his mother, he enrolled (when he was 16 years old) at Leipzig University (1765-68) to study law. Although he practiced law fully—in Frankfurt and Wetzlar— he also kept a parallel career as a literary writer.  

In Weimar, when he was about 35 years old, he fell in love with Charlotte von Stein, an older married woman. This odd relationship caused him to neglect literary production and other studies, dedicating his time to civic affairs.  Later he traveled through Europe, with stays in Italy and France.

In 1812 Goethe met the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven in Teplitz, Beethoven declaring that he was an admirer of Goethe’s work.

A reversal of his early love affair —at 35 years of age— happened when he was 74 years old: Goethe fell in love with 19-year old Ulrike von Levetzow. Obsessed with her, he followed her with high hopes from Marienbad to Karlsbad, only to return to Weimar empty handed and disappointed.

How to become a writer

Despite of his growing up in an orderly household, Goethe's youth was hectic and emotionally draining, but he found an outlet to his turbulent internal life in literature. AT age 25, Goethe was already famous with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). In Werther he created the prototype of the romantic hero whose life would end in despair and suicide.

Goethe was recognized as the leader of the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the warm energy of the body and the spirit, moving away from the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Although Werther was a resounding success, his better and more serious work is is the poetic drama Faust.


Ever since Goethe was a child and saw a puppet show in which one of the puppets was Faust, his interest in old man Faust never waned, making the writing of the poem a lifetime project.

Part 1 he started in his early twenties, completing it thirty years later. It deals with the legend of Faust as an individual, with his love for Margaret, with his soul, with the old man as a seeker, with Mephistopheles’ temptations.

Part 2 is more universal, as it grapples with Western humanity, alluding to Homer, Helen, and the classical world.

Not only was Goethe a literary figure, but he was a politician and a polymath—"the last Universal Man."

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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