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The Writer Himself Or Herself

Critical Faculty--Cultivation of Genius--Observation and
Information--Open-mindedness--Attitude Toward Life--
Prejudice and Provincialism--The Social Question--Reading--

Accessible as are the data of the fiction writer, the facts and
possibilities of life, their very accessibility places him under strict
necessity to sift the useful from the useless in search for the pregnant
theme. For if life presents a multiplicity of events to the writer, from
which he may select some sort of story with little labor to himself,
life also presents the same multiplicity of events to the reader, who
can see the obvious as well as the lazy writer, and who will not be
pleased with a narration of which he has the beginning, middle, and end
by heart. A tale which does not interest fails essentially, and novelty,
in the undebased sense of the word, is the root of interest. Therefore
the writer of fiction who takes himself and his art seriously must
develop the open and penetrating eye and the faculty of just selection.
All is not gold that glitters, a fact that too often becomes painfully
evident only when some tale discovered with joy and developed with
eagerness lies coldly spread upon paper. The beginner who will approach
his own conceptions in a spirit of unbiased criticism and estimation
before determining to set them down will save himself useless labor,
much postage, and many secret tears. Half of the essentially feeble
work produced that has not a chance of getting published is the result
of the writer's falling in love with his own idea simply because it is
his own idea. The defect is in conception rather than in execution, and
a matter of first importance to the writer is to develop the faculty of
estimating his unelaborated ideas.

Unquestionably this faculty can be developed. The struggle for its
development is half over, in a practical sense, when the writer comes to
judge his concepts at all before writing, when he wins free of the habit
of writing just to be writing, and of choosing to work on a particular
tale because it is the best he can squeeze from his brains at the
particular moment, rather than because it is absolutely good and he
knows it to be absolutely good.

Unquestionably, too, the critical faculty is powerless to supply worthy
conceptions. But that is beside the point. If the conceptions are
worthy, the just critical faculty will recognize their merit, and give
the writer courage and confidence to send each tale across the almost
inevitable sea of rejections until it comes to port, as it surely will,
if well done. And if the conceptions are feeble, and the writer cannot
better them, it will be better for him and all concerned that he
discover the truth.

Whether the essential genius of the teller of tales, the power that
first supplies a theme of moment and then a fitting garb for it, is a
plant capable of nurture, is not for me to attempt to show, or even to
state. Fortunately, the question is academic. The dons may debate the
point, but for those who themselves labor in the literary vineyard the
thing to remember is that the same habits of observation and practice
which some claim will create the literary faculty will at least foster
its growth, if it is a gift, as others claim, and not to be
artificially cultivated. Steady hours at the desk and moments with the
notebook, the cultivation of the seeing eye, the informed mind, and the
sympathetic heart, may not be able to create the divine spark. But it
may burn within one for all that; and shall one neglect to bring it to
full flame on the mere chance that it may not exist because of the
possibility that it cannot be created? If the chance of its existence is
great enough in the individual's eyes to justify the labor of writing at
all, it is great enough to justify undertaking the correlative
activities of observation and self-culture. At the least of it, these
can result only in making one a better and more complete man or woman,
irrespective of the literary result. The writer who fancies that his
labor is but to string words, and that idea or passion come to life in
the barren mind or heart, is foredoomed to failure. No equation can be
formed between something and nothing, nor can something come from
nothing. All life and all art is a quid pro quo; the writer must barter
his time and sweat for his raw materials, ideas.

There is little need to state that of writers of equal genius the one
with the deepest reservoirs of observation and information to draw upon
will produce the more significant work. In relation to expository and
argumentive writing the fact is patent; in relation to the writing of
fiction it may be less obvious, but, curiously enough, is even more
impressive when perceived. The writer of special treatise or argument
may "devil" his subject for the occasion; though the writer of fiction
may specially investigate the phase of life or society with which he
deals, his investigations will aid him only in the external matters of
dress, customs, speech, or atmosphere. For the preservation of the
essential congruity and justness of the whole as a presentation of life
he must depend solely upon his own innate familiarity with life, which
cannot be brushed up for the occasion, for it necessarily derives from
the totality of the individual's experience and the use he has made of

In this connection it may be noted that above all else the writer of
fiction must be catholic in his interests and sympathies. He is the
sieve through which the motley stream of life is poured to have selected
for presentation its most significant aspects, and any unwisely
cherished aversions of his are so many gaps in the netting through
which, to his own loss, worthy matter constantly will escape. It is
difficult enough at best for even the most open-minded writer to achieve
some approach to an adequate presentation of a phase of life, and for
the writer whose vision is distorted by prejudice and predilection,
however perfect his technique, it is nearly impossible. The writer of
fiction is concerned with political, social, or religious dogmas only in
so far as they impinge upon and affect the individual life whose course
his pen is tracing, and his only proper and fruitful attitude toward
such dogmas is that of observer, not of fierce advocate or equally
fierce assailant. The heart of the people is sounder than its head,
perhaps because larger, and life is a complex of passion rather than a
complex of intellectual crusades. The writer of fiction addresses the
whole man, his emotional nature as well as his intelligence, and should
address him by presenting the whole man, instead of some feeble
counterfeit not actuated primarily by passion.

Emotion can be evoked only by the portrayal of passion, and
emotion--sympathy, disgust, admiration, any spiritual excitement--is the
root of the appeal of fiction. There are other elements of interest,
primarily intellectual, as in the detective story or any story of
ratiocination, but emotional appeal is the one essential in work of any
compass. Emotional appeal is attainable only through a just presentment
of life, and toward life the writer of fiction must preserve an attitude
of observation and ready acceptance. In the last analysis, that is his
business. The world pays its wage to the scientist for the narrow,
intensive view; it pays its wage to the teller of tales for the broad,
extensive view.

The course of letters is marked by great failures whose essential
technical powers were nullified or at least hampered by their narrow
outlook on life, and by great successes whose achievements bear the scar
of prejudice and provincialism. In our day, the multitudinous standing
controversies of the past have been reduced in bitterness by the more
general diffusion of information and by the conflicting claims of more
numerous interests that demand exercise. Nevertheless we still have the
division between rich and poor, capital and labor, conservative and
radical. For reasons immaterial here, this division and resulting social
conflict will become more complete and bitter; the writer of fiction
will face the fact and be forced to deal with it at times; and it is to
be remembered that one may be abreast or even ahead of the best thought
of the day without being hectic, and that to draw the conservative of
fiction as a fool or a villain simply because he is a conservative is
bad art. Conceivably a man may be back in the ruck of thought and belief
because he is a fool, but he is not a fool merely because he is behind
the times. He may have had no chance to learn better, and that is
precisely the story.

Besides viewing life with a sympathetic and inclusive eye, the writer of
fiction should investigate the smaller world of books. Life is
infinitely more rich in substance than the printed word, but the
observer is not a disembodied spirit, and cannot scrutinize the whole
world, cannot exhaust even his own little neighborhood. He can call to
his service the eyes of his contemporaries and of those who have gone
before, and, in a few hours reading, can live vicariously a dozen lives.
In this very real sense the world of books is practically larger than
the actual world; one can hope to exhaust its more significant matter.
By reading, the writer of fiction can gain familiarity with the actual
tissue of life, the casual relation between motives and acts--so often
obscured in real life--can mingle with nobler, baser, more significant
people than he will be apt to meet, and can estimate the efforts of
others in his own art. Reading of all sorts will yield information, and
reading of fiction will reveal the root causes of success and failure in
the difficult task to precipitate life in words.

There is little need to emphasize the difficulty of the task, twofold as
it is. One must find matter, and one must display it. Not only will
reading conduce to mental development and flexibility; it will reveal
the function of the single word. Life is seen in chiaroscuro, but words
are sharp and definite things. As Stevenson has said, the writer must
work in mosaic, with finite and quite rigid words. If he really works,
scorning to abuse a noble instrument and to prostitute a noble
profession, his difficulties will but increase with his earnestness.
Flaubert is a case in point. Only by reading can the writer discover the
resources of language, and only by reading can he find encouragement in
the spectacle of what patience and devotion have achieved.

One may employ a method of literary presentment diametrically opposite
to that of fitting the right word in the right place, the method of
taking a broad canvas, disregarding length, and, in a sort, modeling the
verbal mass, which will possess plasticity to an extent, though
composed of words intractable and rigid in themselves, like the atoms
which compose modeler's clay. But this method is open only to the writer
of a novel of epic length; the verbal economy of the short story forbids
it; and it will usually be found that the books which manifest it--"Les
Miserables," "David Copperfield," "Tom Jones," "Jean Christophe," "War
and Peace," much of Thackeray's work, for instance--owe their appeal to
the essential vitality and worth of their matter rather than to any
detailed perfection of artistry. If the story is worthy, it will not be
injured by compact and artistic expression; the function of the artist
is to select the significant from life and to present it as pungently
and as perfectly as possible; brevity in expression is as essential as
economy of line in drawing. I have read and heard it stated that
Stevenson and many others eminent for artistry are thin and
self-conscious in their work, and personally I would give much to know
whether this impression does not derive from the fact that many of the
accepted great books of the world, and most of those appearing day by
day, are negligible as examples of executive artistry, by their contrast
making the occasional work that is concisely and artistically done seem
somewhat artificial. The reader is perhaps so accustomed to imperfect
work that the perfect has a touch of artificial glitter, and seems
unreal. But this is a digression. The fact remains that the writer of
fiction who would live by his art cannot afford to go in ignorance of
what has been done before him. He should read, widely and with all his
faculties on the stretch. A vast amount of experiment lies ready on the
printed page. One may not by reading learn how to do perfect work, but
one can at least discover what cannot by any possibility be done.

The general proposition is that the writer of fiction must observe
life, must estimate it, and must express the phase that his estimation
shows to be significant. The open eye, the cultivated and able mind, and
the trained hand are all equally essential, and all must work together
in harmony. Some have the eye without the hand; some the hand without
the eye; in others the faculty of discrimination is wanting; but eye,
mind, and hand may all be trained by application. No one who has not
done his best has the right to complain of failure, and he who engages
in the difficult business of letters, and neglects to use all efforts to
equip himself, is a fool and nothing else. The writer may live in
prosaic surroundings and be repressed by daily contact with people as
dull as ditchwater; yet the world is wide and man a free agent within
limits; let him strike his tent and go elsewhere. But let him first make
quite sure that the defect is in his environment and not in himself.
Otherwise, when ensconced in a snug artistic Bohemia, he may suffer the
pain of learning that some quiet, clear-eyed seer has found rich ores in
the old home life, and has wrought them to fresh shapes of beauty. And
beyond the influence of all accidents of time and place lies the world
of imagination, instinct with austere beauty, offering escape, solace,
and rich gifts to him who has the golden key. Investigate the life that
was Hawthorne's in Salem, Massachusetts, in the thirties and forties,
then read "The Scarlet Letter," and turn your eyes within if ugliness
lies stark about you. No boor and dullard may walk with you in the
fields of fancy, alone with the night wind and the quiet stars. Dream
with sanity, live with sanity, work with sanity and purpose, and realize
that life and thought are your business, and that the stream of life as
a whole is clean and fresh and sweet and utterly interesting even if you
yourself are caught in some stagnant backwater. Open your eyes and swim
for the clear reaches of the stream.

Next: The Choice Of Matter

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