Waste Advice to Young Writers
EVERYONE who writes is called upon to advise young writers. Usually the latter come bearing letters from mutual friends. The thing happens so often that I have reduced my answer to a formula. If the applicant is male I tell him to become a fireman; if female, a governess.
Courtesy forbids that I launch at once into this solution; but after a few verbal passes the way opens. Usually the applicant says, not too tactfully, ‘I am trying to decide whether to write or work.’ To which I reply, burying the wrath of a toiling craftsman deep in pity for their ingenuousness: —
‘Don’t write for publication if you can possibly avoid it. Know that when you publish you are giving hostages never likely to be ransomed. There are critics lying in wait to tear your frail children limb from limb. If you write, the chance is that you will live unhappily and die young. But if you simply must write, if there is that in you which bids you write against such terrible odds, then work at writing in your leisure time until you have wrought something worth taking to market.’
But there are always but’s. ‘But’ — thus my last visitor — ‘the boys get on my nerves so that I simply can’t write after hours.’ He teaches at ——, a private school where no one is overworked and where the atmosphere for literary effort seems well-nigh perfect.
Whereupon I smile inwardly at the opening which youth and innocence leave for the insertion of the fireman formula. ‘Then try this. You want a job which provides the necessities of life and at the same time gives abundant leisure for the perfection of your art. If the work also offers an opportunity to learn the ways of men and the inwardness of life, so much the better. And if your situation does all that and at the same time is rich in action and thrills, it may be said to be the ideal incubator for budding talent. After surveying the entire field of employment, I have no hesitancy in recommending that you join a metropolitan fire department.’
At this point I pause, while my listener’s jaw drops and his eyes tell me he is trying to decide whether I am in jest or in earnest.
‘I am quite serious, my boy, quite serious. As a fireman you could do your routine work with a rush. Then, while the other lads are reading, telling stories, playing cards, snapping their suspenders, doing crossword puzzles, or ogling the neighbor girls, you could write. The fireman’s leisure, I have observed, is imperial in extent, but that is only half of his royal bargain with life. Think of the glory of rushing through the streets on a red truck, bells clanging, pedestrians scurrying, traffic held in its tracks against your passing. The centre of the stage belongs to Friend Blueshirt in one of the few dramas left in our workaday world. Think of the thrill, too, in hunting the red demon through the bowels of an empty house; how tame by comparison is fox-hunting, on which the rich spend thousands. Then the quick, coördinated attack on the enemy with axe, hose, and ladder, each stalwart standing to his duty even unto death. War in the best of causes, truly; war for the right and humanity and the women and children and the home. Oh, the fireman’s life for you!’
* But — ‘ interposes the quarry.
‘One moment!’ I sweep on relentlessly. ‘Have you thought of the literary material such a life offers? You would see the inside of Everyman’s house from cellar to garret; palace of Midas and beggar’s hovel would open their doors to you, not after they had been swept and garnished for company, but in all the intimacies of family usage. Majestic in your slicker and sou’wester, you would stride through them, sweeping aside all veils and hangings, opening closet doors. Suppose the family skeleton tumbles out on you — what a story! Finally, it is part of the writer’s trade to know the ways of men, strong, patient, loyal, nerveless men who do the world’s work year in and year out, heroes in the rough who keep families going on salaries which will seem ludicrously small to you until you have signed the same pay-roll.’
At this point the applicant for advice is reduced to speechlessness, but his glazed eyes, his stricken features, tell me what is going on in his mind. He is n’t going to risk his social position by becoming a fireman even if that is the road to blessed leisure and literary fame. Not he; why, he’s been to college and teaches school and week-ends at some of the best houses!
Exit gloomily, thinking me hopeless.
Comes also the sweet girl-graduate. She too must write, God bless her!
‘Very well,’ I say, ‘write love letters to many young men. That is the literary avenue to the best of all fortunes — home, husband, children. But if the virus of fame has already bitten you so deeply that you must take the public as your target, I beg of you not to submit yourself to the dreary routine of hackwriting. Shun newspaper work, proofreading, stenography, and editorial assistance. Seek, rather, a position as governess in a rich family, rich alike in funds and small children. Travel with them to Palm Beach, Pasadena, the Riviera, Lake Placid. You will have access to their books, their minds, their pleasant gears and trappings.
‘And at the same time that you learn the ways of the upper half, you will not be insulated from the other half. The cook will tell you of her troubles with her husbands, and the nurse-girl will relate her amatory adventures if you reveal to her the least degree of sympathy. Children will be growing under your eyes, and to some extent because of your loving care. A young woman must not divorce her work from love. Mere love of work is not enough; let there be also love-in-work. And, of course, while the children are napping, write. Three hundred words a day is ninety thousand words a year, or a fulllength novel every twelve months. No one in the early stages of a literary career should write more than that.’
So far none of my dear advice-seekers sees fit to follow my advice. They go their ways toward glory by more conventional paths. Yet nothing worth while comes from their pens. Perhaps this is because they are hurried by bosses, smitten by monotony, worried over the expense of keeping up appearances, or shut off from interesting persons. Their pride keeps them down; they will not humble themselves in youth in order to rise later. It may be that college spoils my young callers for the great adventure Thoreau followed through odd-job gardening, Masefield through the forecastle, and McFee through the stokehold. But I am still hopeful that the great American novel may yet be written by an ex-fireman who married an ex-governess.