Flashbacks August 2006

So You Want to Be a Writer

Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.

Francine Prose, an acclaimed author and longtime creative writing teacher, opens her essay in the 2006 Fiction issue with a question: "Can writing be taught?" As she sees it, some aspects of writing, such as judicious editing of one’s own work, can be cultivated. But others, particularly the “gift for storytelling,” cannot be learned. She invites the reader to imagine Milton or Kafka enrolling in a graduate writing program, seeking faculty guidance for Paradise Lost or taking advice from classmates who nix the idea of a man turning into a giant bug.

Such scenarios are preposterous, Prose acknowledges, but their very absurdity invites a troubling question: “What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’ve spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction is a complete waste of time?”

Since the magazine's early years, other Atlantic authors have taken up the same challenge, advising young writers on developing what is essentially an inborn gift. Their collective wisdom covers virtually every step on the tortuous road to success, from the fundamentals of the craft, to dealing with editors, to avoiding alcohol dependence and making do on a writer’s salary.

In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent Boston literary figure, penned "Letter to a Young Contributor," a lengthy essay filled with tips for would-be writers. He argued most emphatically for the importance of writing slowly and carefully. "Disabuse yourself," he advised, "of the belief that any grace or flow of style can come from writing rapidly.”

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose? As a specimen of the labor that sometimes goes to make an effective style, the process is worth recording. When Balzac had a new work in view, he first spent weeks in studying from real life for it, haunting the streets of Paris by day and night, note-book in hand. His materials gained, he shut himself up till the book was written, perhaps two months, absolutely excluding everybody but his publisher. He emerged pale and thin, with the complete manuscript in his hand, not only written, but almost rewritten, so thoroughly was the original copy altered, interlined, and rearranged.

In good writing, he observed, "every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables." To achieve this effect, one must employ certain "rules of style." He warned budding writers, for example, "not [to] habitually prop your sentences on crutches, such as Italics and exclamation points, but make them stand without aid; if they cannot emphasize themselves, these devices are commonly but a confession of helplessness."

He sought also to reassure fledging writers that editors are not necessarily biased against the work of unknowns. To the contrary, he argued,

...every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties. To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public. It is only stern necessity which compels the magazine to fall back so constantly on the regular old staff of contributors, whose average product has been gauged already.

So long as the work itself is worthy, he argued, it would stand an excellent chance of publication. After all, he pointed out, "no editor can ever afford rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one." (This article made such a strong impression upon one unpublished young writer that she took it upon herself to send Higginson a letter and some poems for his feedback. So began a famous epistolary friendship between Higginson and Emily Dickinson—a relationship which has been written about elsewhere in Atlantic Unbound.)
Nearly a century later, Wallace Stegner, an author who served as director of the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, approached the same point but arrived at a very different conclusion. His essay "To a Young Writer" (November 1959) took the form of a letter addressed to a former student—a twenty-something young woman with literary aspirations, a graduate degree, and an unpublished novel. Stegner sought at once encourage her and to give her an honest picture of how difficult her career path would be.

He began by expressing empathy for the uncertainty she must now be feeling:

To date, from all your writing, you have made perhaps five hundred dollars for two short stories and a travel article. To finance school and to write your novel you have lived meagerly with little encouragement and have risked the disapproval of your family, who have understandably said, "Here is this girl nearly thirty years old now, unmarried, without a job or a profession, still mooning away at her writing as if life were forever. Here goes her life through her fingers while she sits in cold rooms and grows stoop-shouldered over a typewriter." So now, with your book finally in hand, you want desperately to have some harvest: a few good reviews, some critical attention, encouragement, royalties enough to let you live and go on writing...

You would like to be told that you are good and that all this difficulty and struggle and frustration will give way gradually or suddenly, preferably suddenly, to security, fame, confidence, the conviction of having worked well and faithfully to a good end and become someone important to the world.

Stegner warned, however, that fame, fortune, and accolades would most likely not be forthcoming. Not because her work was not good: "You write better than hundreds of people with established literary reputations.” The problem, he explained, was that her writing was aimed over the heads of the mass of readers, and would therefore only ever be appreciated by a small audience of "thoughtful readers." She would thus always find herself struggling—"pinched for money, for time, for a place to work."

So was all this worth it? "I would not blame you,” he wrote, “if you ... asked, Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won't pay you a living wage for it?"

But in the end, he argued, living to practice an art that one does well is its own reward:

For you ... it will have to be art. You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories ... and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.

But isn't it enough? For lack of the full heart's desire, won't it serve?
Presented by

Shan Wang is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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