On the Matter of Writing
I WRITE. I do not write particularly well, and I make no pretensions whatever to being able to spell. But the fact remains that I do write. I do not say it with any especial pride, neither do I say it deprecatingly. I merely make a statement, as a printer might say, I print, or a plumber, I plumb. The world at large is not aware that Ann Smith, let us say, though this is not my name, writes. I feel sure that the world could be brave about it even if it knew, but it does not, and it is therefore eliminated from the present discussion. Certain of my friends, however, are aware of the fact, and it is of their attitude in the matter that I wish to speak. They seem to think that there is something peculiar — either sacred, or disgraceful, I am at a loss to determine which — in the matter of writing. They appear anxious, yet fearful, to speak to me about it. They come to more intimate friends of mine, and say, ‘ Does Miss Ann Smith mind my speaking to her about her writing?’ Or perhaps some lady — it is usually a lady, often a rather elderly one, and generally one residing in a certain large New England city — bolder than the rest, will approach me and say, ‘I do not know whether I should speak of it or not. Miss Smith, but I liked that last story of yours.’ Whereat I reply with modestly dropped eyelids, ‘I am so glad you liked it,’ or something suitable of the kind; while all the time my heart is crying out, ‘But, my dear lady, why in Heaven’s name should n’t you speak of it! Do you think I am ashamed of my calling? On the contrary, if what I have produced has given any one pleasure, I am proud of it.’
Or perhaps again, some lady says in a half whisper,‘I hear you write, Miss Smith.’ And when I answer quite audibly and cheerfully, ‘Yes, I write,’ perhaps adding, ‘but not very well,’ as a sop to modesty, and then proceed to tell her joyously how I write and why and when, being always glad to talk about what I am interested in, and glad to have others tell me of their work, whether it is the growing of cabbages, or the crowning of kings, she looks at me strangely, and I realize all at once that I have over-stepped the bounds of good taste. I have, it seems, dragged my golden art in the dust of publicity, I have been brazen enough to speak of it.
I have pondered over this attitude of strained breathlessness in regard to the profession of letters, and have come to the conclusion that it is due to the fact that these people hold art enshrined. They not only spell it with a capital, they illuminate and decorate it with fat cupids holding scrolls over its head. They would hang it upon the wall where one might gaze upon it, but never, never, speak of it. They regard it as so deep and sacred a thing that its followers should not be able to mention it without shedding tears. I feel that they would have been better pleased with me if, when they said, ‘You write, Miss Smith?’ I had been unable to suppress my emotion when I answered, ‘Yes, I write.’ That would have shown how deep my art went with me. But, instead of tears, I burst into laughter, and am disgraced.
But why this attitude toward writing? I imagine that one does in this world what one can do, or what one hopes one can do, whether it be cobbling shoes, writing a sonnet, or washing clothes. Does a cobbler burst into tears when he is asked if he mends shoes? Frankly, I have never seen one do it. Does one creep apologetically up to a fat darky bending over a washtub and whisper in a scared tone, ‘Madam, do you wash clothes?’ And does she weep when she replies? No, she probably answers, ‘Yes, I washes when I gits ready, but I ’se got all right nowdat I kin ’tend to.’ After which she flings back her head, scrubs up and down on her wash-board to the accompaniment of‘Roll, Jordan, Roll,’ or, ‘Lead me to the water,’ and you are more apt to be the one to weep.
Then why should writers be debarred from the same simple attitude toward their work? I do not know that I speak for all, — I know nothing about really great authors, — but I think I speak for a large number of the followers of the trade, when I say that they like to talk about their work, one great reason being that writing is a lonely profession. If you write, as a rule you must do it to yourself; or if you do attempt it in company, you or the company are apt to be sorry. Therefore when the writing is done, and a sympathetic listener offers, the writer is glad to wipe out some of the lonely hours with a little conversation. So, if you know an author, don’t be too breathless about his calling, treat him like a human being. Let him talk a little, and do not be shocked if he manages to keep the tears back when he tells you about his last short story. Only of course be tactful. Do not say, as an eager acquaintance once said to me, ‘Oh, I do think it is so interesting to write, it must be just fascinating when your manuscripts come back!’ I discovered afterwards that she meant proofs instead of manuscripts, but the mistake of just that single word made me, who am usually so garrulous about my trade, feel for the time being that I really did not care ever to speak of it again.
So I repeat, let the poor author talk, but be tactful.