Vocation and Avocation
THAT the man whose true vocation is writing should spend most of his time and strength in doing something else is the strange counsel offered to novices by certain admitted masters of the author’s craft. Spend your days, they advise, in some honest commonplace toil that makes no demand upon the imagination; and in the evening your escape from this drudgery will exhilarate you to the point of effective literary creation. Snatch your wages from a bourgeois world by serving its material needs in counting-house or shop, and you will then be able to develop your higher talents at leisure, unhampered by the limitations of financial anxiety.
No one but the author so belittles his own peculiar function. No representative of any other profession pretends that it can best be learned or practiced at the fag-end of a hard day’s business. Neither musician nor painter is content to accept so subordinate a place for the art to whose exercise he has dedicated himself. Have you an enthusiasm for teaching, above all things ? The leaders of the educational world will certainly not recommend you to be satisfied with the opportunities of a voluntary assistant in a night-school. Are you called to preach ? With no disrespect to the homiletical ability of the laity, most of the churches have long since made up their minds that the task of interpreting the ways of God to man is great enough to require the putting aside of other concerns.
But it is not merely as an offense against the dignity of letters that this minimizing of the literary profession stirs me to a protest. Considered as advice to be actually followed, it is dangerous and misleading. In the first place there is no slight risk lest the mental habits fostered by the occupation of the day be carried over into the work of the evening. It is well-nigh impossible for a man to adopt a career in which a certain intellectual attitude is essential to success and yet remain unmodified by that attitude when he approaches another set of interests. Dr. Robertson Nicoll has shrewdly suggested that Matthew Arnold’s criticism was influenced by his daily routine as inspector of schools: when he had other things than examination papers to deal with he naturally became an inspector of literature, of manners, and of men. “He inspected the homes where he received hospitality, he inspected his hosts, he inspected his fellow-guests. . . . The attitude of superiority which Arnold maintained throughout all defeats and rebuffs, and his absolute unteachableness, are to be credited in considerable measure to his profession.” I have myself known writers whose articles were excellent as lucid and orderly summaries of fact, but were nevertheless intolerably dull. What else could you expect when the pen that wrote them was busy several hours a day in compiling official reports in a government office ?
A more serious objection is that few of us have the physical strength to lead a double life of this kind. No writing is going to be worth much that is not wrought out in the sweat of one’s brain. But if the work of the day has been anything but of the most formal and trivial type it must already have made no slight demand on the energies of both body and mind. Satisfaction at release from drudgery does not necessarily exhilarate: it is not inconsistent with a weariness that finds no refreshment in change of labor. In an interview with a distinguished English writer, published some time ago, it was said that for forty-one years he had spent his days at the Board of Trade and for nearly thirty of them he had devoted his evenings to literary work. “On returning from Whitehall his usual habit after dinner is to read or listen to music until about ten o’clock, when he retires to his study and works until midnight.” Now for myself I could follow this programme with perfect comfort, — until ten o’clock. I dare say that on an emergency I could brace myself to be strenuous from that hour until twelve; but I am afraid the result would be flabby stuff, and I am certain I should have to pay for my excess the next morning. Fatigue is a disturbing phenomenon that we cannot afford to play tricks with, and, though I can give no statistics in support of my opinion, I am confident that only a small proportion of writers could endure, year in year out, the strain of whipping up a tired body to new exertions when Nature calls for rest. “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening ” is the scheme of life which few can transgress without penalty. Of course the objection stated in this paragraph does not apply if the occupation of the daytime is so extraordinarily light as to leave one with freshness unimpaired at 10 p. M. But “soft jobs ” are few, and are becoming fewer. If, in default of private means, I draw my income from a business or an office, I must expect to be called upon to earn it. The earning of such an income is seldom compatible, under ordinary conditions of health, with the simultaneous pursuit of a second career.
And surely it is a seemly thing that we should allot most of our time and strength to the tasks by which we can best serve our generation. If writing is taken up merely as a hobby, it is of course entirely fitting that it should be practiced at odd hours when the spirit moves, like violin-playing or photography. But the case we are discussing is not that of the amateur. It is that of the man who feels he has something to say to his fellows and knows he is not expressing his real self except when he is saying it. It may be that in the present constitution of society services of this kind are recognized disproportionately; that what is commercially called “printed matter ” is not paid for in strict relation to its quality. But it is at least possible to earn a competence by work which is not inconsistent with self-respect, and which, while providing a livelihood, provides also a life worth living. This assumes, of course, that one does not give himself such airs as to suppose journalism to be altogether beneath him. By his attitude to the periodical press a writer may show very clearly whether he is conscious of a mission or merely eager for a reputation. It has been truly said that there is nothing like journalism for any one who is anxious to get things done and does not care who gets the credit for them. And there is so much to do that we may reasonably grudge the surrender of our freshest hours to employments which are accepted for no other reason than their monetary proceeds, and which, however necessary and valuable they may be in their way, offer no scope to the special gifts for whose use we are responsible.
It is refreshing to turn from the pessimism of some flourishing authors to the cheerful courage of that preux chevalier of modern literature — Robert Louis Stevenson. What a comment is his career on De Quincey’s dictum that “no man can succeed in the cultivation of literary art who is not already in the possession of an assured income”! He knew well enough the disappointments and hardships to be faced by those who will throw themselves wholly upon the literary life, but he scarcely seems even to have been conscious of the possibility of making his writing an addendum to some other and more remunerative occupation. You must “weed your mind at the outset,” he admitted, “of all desire of money. What you may decently expect, if you have some talent and much industry, is such an income as a clerk will earn with a tenth or perhaps a twentieth of your nervous output.” But there are compensations. “The direct returns — the wages of the trade — are small, but the indirect — the wages of the life — are incalculably great. No other business offers a man his daily bread upon such joyful terms. . . . Suppose it illpaid: the wonder is it should be paid at all. Other men pay, and pay dearly, for pleasures less desirable.”