A Novelist Takes Stock
by WALTER D. EDMONDS
You cannot generalize about writing. It is the most completely individual of human occupations, except possibly music, and I do not think that anyone can be taught to become a writer. A writer can learn only of himself and by himself: it is a lonely business, and the sooner he recognizes the fact the better. He can enjoy the fleshpots as much as his inclinations or his income may allow him to, but as far as his work is concerned he is essentially like Kipling’s cat that walked by himself, and he has to be if he is to preserve his independence and his integrity. Without his independence a writer will cease to create.
In his course at Harvard, Professor Copeland never professed to make writers of any of his students. But he did try to make them recognize good English, and he did make them practice their hands, as you might say, at using it. Yet the one thing that he said over and over to me was that I must forget that I was “writing,”and that I must think first and only of what I meant the reader to understand. To drive this home he made his students read Swift, and I can give no better advice to the would-be writer, though I should add Defoe and Bunyan with equal emphasis. Style, in other words, is a transparency, and there should be no visible color in it.
Once I nearly was taught to be a writer. The man who made the offer had it worked out on a fifty-fifty basis. He had devised a method by which any story could be charted before the writer set pen to paper. The beginning of the story was A and at the end you had the letter B, with another letter, C, below it. The plot, then, was a line that started from A towards B, but every now and then it would deflect towards C, an alternative ending, thus causing suspense. That was the basis of his theory.
He had elaborated it wonderfully, however. In the first straight line from A towards B there was a list of headings that had to be filled in: place, date, time of day, setting (rural or urban; indoors or out; if indoors indicate social standing of household — as jeweled lorgnette left carelessly on edge of motherof-pearl and ebony coffee table, or baby coughing heavily in rusty foot-tub of cold water under wooden sink; if outdoors, realistic touch, as color of sunset if corresponding to hour of story).
Then into this straight line walks the leading character and of course he is walking towards B at the moment, and we have a list of headings in regard to him — age, weight, color, sex, financial standing, social status (indicate as whether he blows his nose with his handkerchief), and general impression (i.e., is he intelligent, loony, homicidal, etc.?). And whenever another important character comes on the scene, we are to bring out this same handy little box of headings to make sure we present a complete and realistic character.
Of course there were elaborations and refinements, as when a second alternative ending, usually referred to as D on the chart, helped intensify the suspense, or when B, C, and D were, let us say, lovely females instead of situations like marriage or suicide, or success or failure. It was an extraordinarily flexible system and if you applied it to Maupassant, Tolstoy, or the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, it fitted equally well, so you knew it was right. It left nothing to chance, and I am frank to say that I was fascinated. For if you fulfilled the pattern-necessities and answered all the questions and filled in all the headings on the chart, you didn’t have just a story. You had a story that was bound to SELL.
But that was only part of Mr. Bodfish’s (as I shall call him) proposition to me. He had me round to his office towards the end of my senior year and showed me the system, and then he showed me a card index, three boxes deep, and said that in those drawers were fifteen hundred plots for stories that he had made out, taking them from newspaper stories or adapting them from the classics. But, he said, he was a busy man. I had shown some talent for writing. If I would take the Bodfish chart and one of the three drawers, five hundred stories, to start with, and write the stories, we would split the proceeds fifty-fifty.
We should expect to make our initial killing in the Quality Group, but many of the stories were well adapted to the needs of the high-paying magazines, so Mr. Bodfish figured that we ought to count on an average price of five hundred dollars a story for the first year’s work. If I did a story every week, as I ought to be able to, since he had supplied the ideas and the method of writing and all I had to do was select the color of eyes, hair, and so on, and work in some atmosphere as I went along, my share of the year’s take ought to be $12,500. And after two years, when the names of Bodfish and Edmonds were worth money, I ought to be pulling dowm at least $40,000 a year as my share for the story-sales alone, not counting possible motion pictures. And by that time Mr. Bodfish thought he could guarantee another five or six hundred story-ideas for me to work at.
I was dazzled. I was really dazzled. Mr. Bodfish suggested that we might make out a little agreement, but that there was no hurry about it — just do it if I decided to take the drawer home with me, since its contents did represent a good deal of money. And then, I don’t know what it was, but sweat burst out all over me, and I got scared of it. Yet Mr. Bodfish seriously and kindly urged me not to throw away this opportunity — not many college boys, he said with utter truthfulness, could afford to throw away $12,000 — and why didn’t I take home one card with me and just see how it worked out?
So I did that. I took home the card, which was about a soldier returning from the last war, when he had been presumed dead, and his wife on that very day was unveiling a statue to him in the village square, and beside her on the seat of the twin-six Packard touring car was the man who had proposed to her before she married her soldier husband. To this man she was now engaged to be married. This man was also her husband’s best friend. And the husband, looking over the heads of the crowd, watched t he ceremony, and behind everything and everybody you could see good old B and C rising up right where they ought to.
I thought it was a hell of a good story. But I tried to write it and sweated over it all that afternoon and evening and part of the next day, and I could not write a line of it.
Then I went out to lunch, and in the cafeteria a waitress dropped a meat ball and a cat came from nowhere and grabbed it and tore out of the place, and outside a dog started chasing the cat up the street, and it made a commotion. I saw the dog had no idea that he was chasing a meat ball. And the cat didn’t know it either. They were enacting a formula older than seduction, and yet the formula didn’t really apply to their situation. And then it occurred to me that the reason Mr. Bodfish didn’t write those fifteen hundred stories himself, but chose instead to stick to his teaching, was that he wasn’t sure of his formula either. Probably I was just one of many attempts he had made to realize a lovely dream. So, when I returned to my room, I wrote him a note saying that I couldn’t write his story, which he would find enclosed.
But 1 made up my mind then that a writer can only write out of his own head; and also I was sure that writing was not a matter of working out formulas, however foolproof. You cannot create a character or tell a story about him by brooding over a line labeled A—B. Mr. Bodfish’s proposition was perfectly sincere; but writing as a search for truth, indeed writing as anything except a means of making money, did not appear to enter his system at all.
SOME writers can tailor their talent to fit a particular market; but the work they produce will never be literature — at the best it will be only high-class dress-goods. There are also writers who are able to do this tailoring on a portion of their writing to support themselves while keeping completely separate the work into which they put both their hearts and minds. But these writers are the few and generally have great mental discipline. I do not believe that this splitting of work is good or possible for the average writer. For there is an unwritten contract between every writer and his readers that he will write as truthfully as his talent is capable of; and he cannot keep this contract if he writes under obligation to anyone else.
But, as I suspect, every writer must find this out for himself. In my own case, I set out, a good many years ago, to write Saturday Evening Post stories, and a short time later a note came from George Horace Lorimer that, if convenient, he wished I would come to see him in Philadelphia. I thought, of course, that I was “in.” But after one of those extraordinary hushed and solemn Post luncheons, he took me into his office alone and told me that he had read my stories and thought that they were good enough to warrant his saying that I could undoubtedly become one of the Post’s “ regular ” writers; but he wondered if I had stopped to think what it meant.
Did I want to spend my time writing for the Post or for myself? For, he said, once I had started writing fiction for a magazine, I should probably never write any other way; or if I tried to emancipate myself, I should find it a very bitter struggle to erase the easier habits of mind. If I went on writing in my own way, the time might or might not come when the Post would want my stories — but in that case they would be my stories, not Saturday Evening Post stories by Walter Edmonds, and as a matter of practical fact they would be worth a good deal more to the magazine. For the two things that a writer had that might prove of value in this world were his individual talent and his point of view.
Maybe this sounds like the generalization I said should not be made about writing. But if it is, it boils down to the fact that the writer must work by himself and for himself and of himself. He has to go his own way, arriving at his own beliefs and devising his own methods of expressing them.
METHODS of work vary for all writers, although almost every writer who docs not habitually run in the tea and cocktail circuit usually works regular hours. These may be morning hours, or afternoon, or night; it makes no difference so long as they are regularly kept. It does not matter either whether an author prefers a pen, or a typewriter as I do, or a goose quill as someone else did (wasn’t it Galsworthy?), or whether, like William Dean Howells he has to have a whole scries of pens and pencils stuck through potatoes of carefully graduated sizes to compensate for increasing severity of writer’s cramp. For the most part such idiosyncrasies are pure superstition: after a time almost every writer becomes as superstitious and as full of fetishes as a dog fox.
The one thing that all writers do have in common, however, is the problem of the blank first page of any piece of work. It is often said that the beginner sitting down to his first attempt may have his story and his characters all clear and solid in his mind but is at a complete loss as to how to project them. But I do not think this has anything to do with being a beginner. There is a point at which every book is ready to write, but before then it won’t write no matter what contortions you go through. Some experienced hands seem able to judge that moment to a nicety. Other practitioners seem never to be troubled at all, but theirs is the easy gift of glibness.
I know that in my own case when I sat down to begin Rome Haul near t he end of the first week of November, 1927, there was never a moment’s hesitation. Title, chapter heading, and the opening sentence came out without a pause, and by lunchtime that first morning Chapter One was finished. And the book never stopped writing at that pace. By the end of February the manuscript of 100,000 words was done, and in between I had taken a week off to do a story for the Atlantic. But, the point was that I had been stirring Rome Haul round and round in my mind for nearly three years, and when I finally took off the lid to see what I had cooked up, the book practically blew up in my face. I needed no notes, I had no outline: the book seemed to write itself. It was a wonderful experience.
I had to learn that the second book is harder than the first, and the third harder than the second. (I threw away the third one.) After the fourth I began to learn a little about writing.
The Rig Barn was the second, and having been told that Rome Haul was too formless to lay much claim to art, I made a careful outline of The Big Barn. But the outline was always getting under the feet of my characters. I had to keep picking them up and dusting them off and putting them back on the line, and before I was through I nearly went crazy. But I tried the system again in Erie Water.
This time, however, I threw away the outline and then rewrote the last quarter of the book, and I also made up my mind never to keep notes. Still, though it contains no footnotes, Erie Water is as carefully documented as many a formal biography.
The writing of fiction is three-fourths mental digestion, by the author, of both his story and his material. If he makes a note of any point, he automatically stops the process of digestion — it is on paper, there is no need to work on it, for he has it there to refer to when needed. Of course it means that, with a slipshod mind like mine, I sometimes have to look up the same point two or three times or, what is even worse, look it up again after the book is published, to satisfy a reader with a thirst for truth. But what I finally write down seems to me, at least, to have a unity of feeling that never emerges from notes. Moreover, in this way, though a good many critics would raise an eyebrow at the statement, a great many things are eliminated that otherwise would find their way into the manuscript merely for their own sake as bits of knowledge or information because I had happened to make notes of them. It always pains a writer not to make use of any piece of his work, even notes, and it is easier to avoid the temptation entirely.
HISTORICAL novels arc not different from any other kind in needing a story to carry the reader’s interest and in presenting their characters with some feeling of life and reality. But there are two special problems that face the writer, unless he wants to descend to the historical romance, which is really only a glorified pipe-dream. The romance is a costume piece. It makes capital as heavily as possible of its past tense. It reflects the surface glitter, and it is more interested in the people who live on the top of the human heap or the people who rose to wear the silks and velvets and who were more concerned with the problem of flour for the hair than flour for the belly. Or to put it another way, the historical romancer is not interested in underwear unless it is a lady’s, preferably in process of removal.
But the writer of a historical novel wants to remove from his reader’s mind as much consciousness of history as he can. He wants to bring into his pages a sense of the present, of the immediacy of events. To achieve this he needs to know how people actually lived, not just how men were led into battle or danced at the governor’s mansion. There is only one place to find this out, and that is in the actual sources — in the newspapers, the advertisements, the letters, and diaries, and journals, and daybooks; in what has been left us of their time by the men and women who worked in it, who lived and died and had children and worried about their future.
In writing Drums Along the Mohawk, for instance, I needed to know more than the Saratoga Campaign. I was not dealing with Schuyler or Arnold or Gates, but with people who were trying to preserve their families and ideals and barns in the midst of war, and as I began to refresh my knowledge of the main events, I became more and more surprised to see how little I knew and could find out about the ordinary citizen.
I had made a start at writing, and I went ahead for a hundred and fifty pages before I stopped to reread the whole stretch of writing and realized that the people were not in the book, but that what I had written was the regular historical romance, with all the trappings and horseback riding and uniforms and lovely glitter. The whole state was in the pages, and the imaginary characters were cantering over the map with the rapidity of Ford cars. It was almost exactly like Robert W. Chambers (whose books are great fun to read but have little to do with life as it was). So I threw everything out and went at my reading and within six months I made another Start.
This time I reread the whole at only one hundred pages, and though they seemed an improvement, I still found I was writing of the past. The people were not alive in their own day, but seemed to be looking back at it as I did. I am not going to catalogue the false starts. When finally, three years from the first day I sat down to it, the book was done and published, I had eight hundred pages of rejected beginnings piled up.
But once it got going, the actual writing of the book took only six months. For by then I had long since given over any reading of the formal history and was working with the sources. Often these were inaccurate in their recollection of events, of deaths, of who said exactly what. But they had the feeling of the time, and they were not history written by someone for the benefit and “instruction” of another generation. Moreover real people, who actually lived along the Mohawk, found a place in the book and fitted the story of events far better than any I might have invented.
And it was easy to write about them, for I now knew how they lived — what drinks were mixed in the backwoods taverns and how a party managed a husking bee and slept afterwards. I knew what a man had to pay in taxes on his land and how the taxes rose during the war, and I learned how his crops went and the problems of help that he had to contend with. If one of my characters had to move up or down the valley, I knew what the weather was like.
I found out what happens to a man’s face when he is scalped, and how much the doctor charged to heal the wound and how long it was likely to take. I learned what the Indians looked like, and how they lived, and that they were simple people, often of great, warmth of heart, and humor, and often cruel, like ourselves. I learned how people burned land, baptized their babies, went to church, got married in wartime; that dogs howled after an Indian raid; who lived in which settlements, and what it was like in a frontier stockade.
I had then, in fact, become so saturated that I did not need to think of details. That is the main reason for really learning your subject. It is as necessary in writing a historical novel as in a novel laid in your own time. You can have no truth without it. Your work will be spurious.
FOR the more you know the less your atmosphere depends on listed details for its veracity. Your knowledge becomes the underpinnings of the story
— it is there but does not show — while the historical romancer lays his in a wonderful overlarding on the top. Moreover you have less chance of making the ludicrous kind of boner that, for example, Hervey Allen has in The Forest and the Fort.
There is a deal of fine set-piece historical description of the Ohio Wilderness in this portrait of the natural American. There is an elaborate presentation of Indian and frontier life, and it is very grand and very readable, and if you like a good gallop on a romancer’s knee, by all means read it. You will find, for instance, that the Indians trap beaver during the middle of the summer, and the hero, while learning to starch shirts and curl hair in a few days’ time, though he is fresh out of an Indian boyhood, also earns himself a little stake by catching pelts to sell in August and September.
Now Salathiel Albine might go trapping silver foxes on Fifth Avenue in August and find good fur
— but he certainly didn’t get them in the Ohio woods. And one such demonstration of a lack of understanding, of even one small detail, can give a whole book an air of falseness, for trapping and the trade in furs were a basic element of frontier living.
But the book gallops along and will be read, and people will have fun with it, for it is a capital romance. Only, when it has been read, I wish all readers of it would get The Trees, by Conrad Richter, so that they will know what the Ohio Wilderness was really like, and how people lived in it, and how it looked to them. It’s a small book, but it is one of the finest as well as the most lovely evocations of our past in all our literature. Nothing very grand happens in it, but when you finish it you will have lived in its time. It is one of the books that seem to me truly written — and I would give an arm to have written it myself.
The second problem for the historical novelist is to keep himself and his 1940 prejudices out of the picture. I think I can illustrate this simply, again from Drums Along the Mohawk. In that book I had to write a passage of Benedict Arnold coming up the valley with troops for the relief of Fort Stanwix. Now I had read Rabble in Arms and completely disagreed with Kenneth Roberts’s interpretation of Arnold as a good man of noble intentions, and the temptation to present him in an unfavorable light was almost insuperable. But to the people in the Mohawk Valley he would have seemed merely another Continental officer, and that was the only way honestly to present him in the book, and I let him come and go without a harsh word. But I didn’t enjoy doing it at all.
Carl Van Doren has since sufficiently exposed the inaccuracy of Mr. Roberts’s interpretation of Benedict Arnold, but it is a great pity that two such fine books as Rabble in Arms and Arundel should have been overlaid with such a strange distortion.
Some critics say that my books are not novels at all; others say that they aren’t history either. One of them, for instance, reported of Drums Along the Mohawk that if really contained no history because it was outside the main stream of the Revolution; but that is like saying that the Russian guerrillas on the flank of the winter line have really nothing to do with the war against Fascism. The Continental high command certainly counted on the frontiersman to protect their flank and rear whether they were able to send him help or not. But I am not sure that the critics aren’t right and that my books are neither novels nor the kind of formal history we were taught in school.
It might be better to call them chronicles of the life and times of the ordinary citizens through two hundred-odd years, and the growth and change of their section of Central New York. But the fact that the books keep within the geographical limits of the state does not seem to me to remove them from the stream of history. However, that does not much matter — it is the story of the people and the land that is to tell, whatever you call it, and it reaches from the time the first white men went into the Iroquois country to my own day and crossroads when another heedless government turned its constabulary loose on a farmer citizenry. That is not a pretty story, and it is still to tell, but I hope when it is wise to tell it that I can do the truth full justice.
In between, the people have had much to do, and though what they have done and talked about and hoped for may seem to the scholars to have little to do with the pattern of formal history, it is the fabric on which that pattern is printed. Famous men are in large part a reflection of their times; but it is the little man behind history who in the long run determines those times.
Walt Whitman stood on the doorslab and asked, “Who has done his day’s work?” And that is what I want to know.