In the ideas issue of The Atlantic last summer—“How Genius Happens”—we missed a chance to resurrect a fascinating piece from 1933. It’s called “Confessions of a Novelist,” and it’s by one of magazine’s most illustrious contributors. At 71, Edith Wharton could have been forgiven for feeling a little defensive. Her novels had once been hailed as revolutionary, but now her name was often prefaced by “the killing word ‘distinguished,’” as her biographer Hermione Lee puts it. The Depression had been hard on Wharton. (“Like everyone in America, I find my income diminishing day by day,” she wrote her publisher.) Magazine editors, her agent had to break it to her, were no longer clamoring for her fiction: It “did not fit in” was an increasingly frequent verdict. Readers were looking for gritty realism or escapist romance, and Wharton’s psychological probing of high society had begun to seem old-fashioned.
But she was undaunted and so, I’m glad to say, were the editors at The Atlantic. Wharton set out to explore “the deeper processes” at work in her art, and she was not afraid to risk sounding a little dotty, which greatly adds to the appeal of the essay. Puzzled that “so few writers seem to have watched themselves while they wrote,” she promised exciting self-scrutiny. Move over Henry James: she wasn’t about to offer tame “analyses of … the technical procedure employed” in constructing her books. Wharton was ready to reveal “the teeming visions which, ever since my small-childhood, and even at the busiest and most agitated periods of my outward life, have incessantly peopled my inner world.”
Wharton, of course, could not have foreseen the flood of experts on creativity who now peddle their neuroscientific wisdom. They, and the rest of us, could benefit from a backward glance at her boldly inconsistent revelations about the “mystery of what happens in the brain” when a story takes root. Wharton blends magical channeling (characters “start up before me, coming seemingly from nowhere”) and matter-of-factness (they have names that, however peculiar, she can’t possibly change). Their dialogue, she insists, is out of her hands: she’s “merely a recording instrument.” Yet her characters can’t just walk away with the drama; their fate is under her control. Wharton is well aware how weirdly elusive yet hyper-vivid it all sounds: “the process, though it takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness, is yet always illuminated by the clear light of my critical attention.”
Don’t get the idea that the prose simply gushed forth from such a well-stocked font of inspiration. Wharton doesn’t mind confessing that she’s “always been a slow worker,” and has known her share of insecurity. Right in step with the current emphasis on practice, practice, practice, she swears by “the effect on my imagination of a systematic daily effort.” Her motto, after she’d written House of Mirth, was a stunningly humble goad I’m not going to forget: “I remember saying to myself, when the book was done: ‘I don’t yet know how to write a novel; but I know how to find out how to.’”