So You Want to Be a Writer

Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.

Francine Prose, an acclaimed author and longtime creative writing teacher, opens her essay in the 2006 Fiction issue with a question: "Can writing be taught?" As she sees it, some aspects of writing, such as judicious editing of one’s own work, can be cultivated. But others, particularly the “gift for storytelling,” cannot be learned. She invites the reader to imagine Milton or Kafka enrolling in a graduate writing program, seeking faculty guidance for Paradise Lost or taking advice from classmates who nix the idea of a man turning into a giant bug.

Such scenarios are preposterous, Prose acknowledges, but their very absurdity invites a troubling question: “What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’ve spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction is a complete waste of time?”

Since the magazine's early years, other Atlantic authors have taken up the same challenge, advising young writers on developing what is essentially an inborn gift. Their collective wisdom covers virtually every step on the tortuous road to success, from the fundamentals of the craft, to dealing with editors, to avoiding alcohol dependence and making do on a writer’s salary.

In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent Boston literary figure, penned "Letter to a Young Contributor," a lengthy essay filled with tips for would-be writers. He argued most emphatically for the importance of writing slowly and carefully. "Disabuse yourself," he advised, "of the belief that any grace or flow of style can come from writing rapidly.”

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose? As a specimen of the labor that sometimes goes to make an effective style, the process is worth recording. When Balzac had a new work in view, he first spent weeks in studying from real life for it, haunting the streets of Paris by day and night, note-book in hand. His materials gained, he shut himself up till the book was written, perhaps two months, absolutely excluding everybody but his publisher. He emerged pale and thin, with the complete manuscript in his hand, not only written, but almost rewritten, so thoroughly was the original copy altered, interlined, and rearranged.

In good writing, he observed, "every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables." To achieve this effect, one must employ certain "rules of style." He warned budding writers, for example, "not [to] habitually prop your sentences on crutches, such as Italics and exclamation points, but make them stand without aid; if they cannot emphasize themselves, these devices are commonly but a confession of helplessness."

He sought also to reassure fledging writers that editors are not necessarily biased against the work of unknowns. To the contrary, he argued,

...every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties. To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public. It is only stern necessity which compels the magazine to fall back so constantly on the regular old staff of contributors, whose average product has been gauged already.

So long as the work itself is worthy, he argued, it would stand an excellent chance of publication. After all, he pointed out, "no editor can ever afford rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one." (This article made such a strong impression upon one unpublished young writer that she took it upon herself to send Higginson a letter and some poems for his feedback. So began a famous epistolary friendship between Higginson and Emily Dickinson—a relationship which has been written about elsewhere in Atlantic Unbound.)
Nearly a century later, Wallace Stegner, an author who served as director of the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, approached the same point but arrived at a very different conclusion. His essay "To a Young Writer" (November 1959) took the form of a letter addressed to a former student—a twenty-something young woman with literary aspirations, a graduate degree, and an unpublished novel. Stegner sought at once encourage her and to give her an honest picture of how difficult her career path would be.

He began by expressing empathy for the uncertainty she must now be feeling:

To date, from all your writing, you have made perhaps five hundred dollars for two short stories and a travel article. To finance school and to write your novel you have lived meagerly with little encouragement and have risked the disapproval of your family, who have understandably said, "Here is this girl nearly thirty years old now, unmarried, without a job or a profession, still mooning away at her writing as if life were forever. Here goes her life through her fingers while she sits in cold rooms and grows stoop-shouldered over a typewriter." So now, with your book finally in hand, you want desperately to have some harvest: a few good reviews, some critical attention, encouragement, royalties enough to let you live and go on writing...

You would like to be told that you are good and that all this difficulty and struggle and frustration will give way gradually or suddenly, preferably suddenly, to security, fame, confidence, the conviction of having worked well and faithfully to a good end and become someone important to the world.

Stegner warned, however, that fame, fortune, and accolades would most likely not be forthcoming. Not because her work was not good: "You write better than hundreds of people with established literary reputations.” The problem, he explained, was that her writing was aimed over the heads of the mass of readers, and would therefore only ever be appreciated by a small audience of "thoughtful readers." She would thus always find herself struggling—"pinched for money, for time, for a place to work."

So was all this worth it? "I would not blame you,” he wrote, “if you ... asked, Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won't pay you a living wage for it?"

But in the end, he argued, living to practice an art that one does well is its own reward:

For you ... it will have to be art. You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories ... and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.

But isn't it enough? For lack of the full heart's desire, won't it serve?

Two decades later, in "Writing, Typing, and Economics" (March 1978) economist John Kenneth Galbraith weighed in with more pragmatic writing advice. Though a professor of economics, he was also recognized as a prolific and talented writer. He had been an editor of Fortune magazine and was the author of numerous essays, reviews, and books.

Galbraith's first suggestion was to resist the fantasy that good writing can only be accomplished during moments of inspiration:

All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand—are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same.

He also emphasized the importance of revision. "Anyone who is not certifiably a Milton," he wrote, "had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: writing is difficult work."  This difficulty, he warned, is enough to drive many a writer to drink. He therefore advised against relying on alcohol as a crutch. "It is, quite literally, very sobering," he pointed out, "to reflect upon how many good American writers have been destroyed by this solace—by the sauce. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner—the list goes on and on." He offered a rule of thumb:  "Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn't have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up."

In "A Writing Woman" (October 1979), novelist Gail Godwin took a personal approach to the question of the writing life, structuring her essay as a memoir. She began by discussing her writer mother's lifetime struggle to balance her home and romantic life with her quest for literary success. She then went on to consider how her own life had ended up mirroring those same struggles and considered the questions raised in translating such experiences into fiction.

Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. Which stops where, and how much to put in of each? At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it as it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be—or what would make a better story?

She appreciatively recalled a writing instructor she once had at the City Literary Institute of London, who had forthrightly clarified for her why her fiction wasn't working, and assigned her a series of assignments to help. "That she was able to tell me, moreover to prescribe exercises to correct my faults," Godwin wrote, "was my good fortune."

But in her view, it was her brief marriage to a psychotherapist that finally put her on a path to success. Her husband, trained to analyze the motivations and emotions of others, was able to help her identify what he determined was the real obstacle hindering her career:  a fear of failure. Though her marriage to him didn't last, his insight was able to release her from her self-imposed restraints, allowing her at last to write compellingly and with freedom.

As for Francine Prose, she goes on to answer her own daunting question about whether great writing can be learned. It is close and thoughtful reading, she asserts, that is in fact most important to the apprentice writer. Prose herself uncovered this secret as a high school junior when an English teacher assigned her to write an essay on symbolism in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. The exercise seemed tedious at first. But to her surprise, Prose learned that poring over these works was like deciphering an ancient code. “I felt,” she recalls, “as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.”

In fact, she points out, she was merely rediscovering the oldest known method for developing a writer’s own innate abilities. In days gone by, writers-in-training honed their craft not by soliciting advice from successful writers but by simply absorbing the greatness of those who came before them.

They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?