Letter to a Young Writer

From a young and eminently successful journalist and short-story writer, this friendly letter holds values which we believe are worth sharing with a wider audience. It was not written for publication, and its author requested that his name be withheld. THE EDITOR
IT WAS fine to hear from you after such a long time. I hope that in reading what I have to say about the manuscript you sent me you will keep in mind the fact that I am the man who, on seeing Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit try out in New Haven, offered to bet it would be a flop.
It seems to me, as apparently it does to you, that the quotation from Katherine Mansfield to the effect that her stuff is all embroidery without strong material to hold it together speaks for you both. And embroidery without design, on a plane no matter how rarefied, amounts more or less to doodling with a needle.
It strikes me that any kind of writing wants movement of one kind or another — if not from one point to the other, at least movement toward the accomplishment of some purpose. I believe that the material you have shown me is the kind of thing every writer feels, probably sets down as an exercise in matching feeling to phrase, and then puts aside.
This writing business must inevitably be a two-way street. In it there must be compensation for both the writer and the reader. So far as I can see, the gratification to be derived from the pages you sent me must accrue almost entirely to the author.
The special feeling and interpretations on these pages might well serve as attributes for characters in fiction, characters projected into a progressive design that would hold the reader’s interest. Simply to set them down as an unordered catalogue of I-feelings, which embrace now the cosmos and now Dorothy Parker, just won’t, within the range of circumstances I can imagine, do the job.
These special feelings, of a novelist or a poet, are the storehouse upon which he draws to give range to his writing and verisimilitude to his characters and situations, but again they are wisely used only in fashioning and modifying his characters, whose primary purpose is in turn to do something that will either entertain the reader or broaden his experience, even horrify or terrify him - but in any case do something he is willing to have done to him.
When this purpose is skillfully and faithfully accomplished, the reader can test and analyze his own feelings in relation to those of the characters presented. Because, in the last analysis, it is his own feelings and circumstances, pleasure or enlightenment, in which he is interested. I think none of us writers may expect to be heard except as we unselfishly, or at least apparently unselfishly, do something of some kind for the reader.
It comes down more or less to a case of who’s supposed to be working: the writer or the reader.
If we want to lay the engaging nature of our own souls before the public for appreciation and applause — as which of us doesn’t? — we simply have to earn the privilege by doing something that will so hold the reader that, grateful for the pleasure and enlightenment we have given him, he will be predisposed in our favor. From there on, we have it all our own way.
There are a couple of short cuts in all this, so far as the writer’s personal well-being is concerned. And they are often resorted to with profit. One short cut is love-sex, which under fortunate circumstances will cure or substantially ameliorate almost anything. Another, for the writer who cannot command a sympathetic audience, is to find one in the confessional either of the church or of the psychiatrist’s office.
I wish you all possible luck and send love. Nobody realizes any better than I do how damned maddening it is to find yourself in a vacuum, bursting with things to say and being, for the time, loused up in the business of saying them.
P.S. Now that I ’ve got talking, there arc a couple of other points I’d like to call to your attention. Wherever possible, get on top of your subject and handle it, no matter how delicate that subject may be, with direction and with some measure - however much you feel to be fitting — of force. You must remember that you live in a time when everyone about you is full of dismay and confusion. Readers do not want, cannot bear, and will not accept that part of you which is sheer undirected agony and confusion, however exquisite it may be. If you should write an essay on finding a ripe nut lying in the woods, let it start somewhere, end somewhere, and be coherent throughout. If your subject dismays you, either diminish its scope or attack it with such fierce determination that you can maul it into some symmetry and order.
Finally, I should like to call to your attention the fact that you have a talent for humor. I’ll lay five to one that humor will be the instrumentality through which you will one day find the expression you so earnestly seek. Does that idea seem goofy on the face of it, since you know that in reality you are a tragic figure? Let me remind you that so, in towering degree, are S. J. Perelman, James Thurber, Ring Lardner, the profound pessimist Dorothy Parker, and, over on the wrong side of the tracks, me.
P.P.S. As to advising you about whether you should come to New York, I’d rather undertake to make a tree, on which you know who has the patent. If it could be arranged, however, I certainly see no reason why you shouldn’t.