Writers have a great deal to say about the literary life which may be of interest to aspiring writers reading this post and to veteran writers too.
Make a Bundle of Money–At Least Try (Why Not?)
Many agents and publishers told a friend of mine that his manuscript was unpublishable. He had faith in himself and didn’t believe them. He persevered. It was published. It sold 25 million copies and he suddenly was rich. On the other hand, when Ernest Hemingway was young and poor in Paris and unable to support his family with his stories he would catch pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens when the gendarme on duty went into a café during his break, and then take them home and cook them. Some writers, like painters such as Pablo Picasso, love being rich. Picasso said he wanted to work without material worries “like a pauper,” “but with a lot of money.”
Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Novelist Anthony Trollope said that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort. But poet Kenneth Rexroth said, “I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” Jules Renard said: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
Irvin S. Cobb wrote: “If writers were good businessmen they’d have too much sense to be writers.” “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business” (John Steinbeck).
Blaise Pascal said that anything that is written just to please the author is worthless. William Faulkner (was usually out of money): He said “I began to think of books in terms of possible money. I took a little novel and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks”–the financially successful Sanctuary.
Interfering with an author’s desire to be solvent if not rich is the difficulty of getting books published: commenting on the difficulties of getting his play Auntie Mame on the stage, Patrick Dennis said, “It circulated for five years through the halls of fifteen publishes and finally ended with Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep into the alphabet.”
A consolation is that your book may be too good to be popular. It’s silly to think that most successful writer is necessarily the best writer: “A best-seller is the gilded tomb of mediocre talent” (Logan Smith.)
When At a Party of Artistic People, Talk Like a Genius
What do geniuses talk about? Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso attended the same Parisian party in May, 1922. Proust complained about his indigestion and Joyce about his headache. Picasso admired the women and Stravinsky snubbed them all.
Make Sure You’re Writing Has “Zing”
An agent told a writer-client that his books weren’t selling because there wasn’t enough sex in them. The writer said, “Are you kidding,” and opened his book and showed him the scene on the first page: the countess races out into the street naked with the hero also naked and in a state of arousal chasing her.
“Yes, yes” said the agent, “but look how far down the page.”
Take Criticism of Your Work and Yourself with Grace
Charles Lamb’s first play was hissed off the stage by the audience. Lamb was in the audience and hissed too because he didn’t want to be recognized.
One of the problems superb writers face is that they–and no one else–are the best judge of their work and yet they must endure sometimes ignorant, amateurish editors and critics. Henry Miller found himself being abused by editor after editor he submitted work to. He snarled, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off saying such things to me?”
What is a critic’s function? Screenwriter Wilson Mizener said that a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant.
The French critic Saint-Beave was challenged to a duel by an angry author and given the choice of weapons. “I choose spelling.” he said, “You’re dead.”
Writers want to be treated courteously, understandingly, and considerately, and why shouldn’t they be? But a literary critic burned Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and sent him the ashes. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s work are often compared, but she didn’t like his writing at all. She said Ulysses was “The work of a queasy underclassman scratching his pimples.”
Be Truthful and Accurate
English novelist Arnold Bennett bragged that his description of one of his character’s death couldn’t be topped for its accuracy because he had taken infinite pains over it, basing it on his father’s death. Bennet said that all the time his father was dying “I was at the bedside making copious notes.”
Be Prepared for Mishaps and Misjudgments (No one’s perfect)
Ernest Hemingway lost and never recovered a trunk full original manuscripts of his short stories he forgot on a train. John Steinbeck’s dog chewed up half of the first daft of Of Mice and Men. Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick with a hors d’ oeuvre at a cocktail party. Katherine Mansfield married a singing teacher eleven years older than herself and abandoned him the morning after their wedding night. George Bernard Shaw said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.”
You Must Focus on Writing Above All Else (Are you a writer or aren’t you?)
“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for her living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art” (Playwright George Bernard Shaw.) “Everything goes by the book, honor, pride, decency–to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies” (William Faulkner). At ten in the morning a writer friend of Shelley left him standing by the mantle in his study as he read. When the friend returned at 6:00 p.m. Shelley was standing in the same place reading and hadn’t moved an inch the entire day.
You Might Have to Work at Odd Jobs Before Hitting It Big
Novelist /teacher John Gardner said almost all full-time jobs are hard on writing. Henry Miller dug graves for a living. Vachel Lindsay traded poems for bread. Erich Maris Remarque sold tombstones. Novelist William Burroughs was an exterminator. Poet Carl Sandburg was a janitor. William Faulkner was a bootlegger and postmaster of a university post office. Raymond Carver worked in a morgue. George Bernard Shaw said, “You must never suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living.”
Like Athletes, You Must Warm Up Before You Get Started
While writing The Red and the Black, Stendah,l in order to acquire the right tone, read two or three pages of the Civil Code every morning. Willa Cather had to read from the Bible before she was ready to start writing. Ernest Hemingway had to first sharpen all the pencils he anticipated using that day. Edgar Alan Poe petted his cat before he started. Thomas Wolfe took long walks to get ready.
Like most writers Honore Balzac had to have coffee first. He overdid it, though, drinking fifty cups a day, and eventually dying from coffee poisoning. Samuel Johnson drank twenty-five cups of tea before starting his writing day.
Rudyard Kipling couldn’t get started unless the pen’s ink was very dark. Alexandre Dumas, pere needed rose-colored paper to start if he was writing nonfiction, but for fiction he had to have blue paper and yellow paper for poetry.
Writing Is Not Easy so You Might Need Something to Motivate You
The great innovator Gustave Flaubert said it was a delicious thing to write. I’ve never known or heard about or can conceive of or imagine a writer who didn’t feel that way. There’s just something about the act of writing that is motivation enough for most writers. But Victor Hugo needed some other motivation too. So at the beginning of his work day he gave all his clothes to his servant who was ordered to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of several hours.
You May or You May Not Need Solitude
Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, went a year without talking to anyone. Truman Capote’s advice to young writers was to socialize and not “go up to a pine cabin all alone,” because “You reach that stage soon enough.” Voltaire preferred the company of his mistress. He wrote in bed using her back as a desk.
Make It a Point To Please Your Publisher and the Book Buyer
Victor Hugo wanted to know if his publisher liked Les Miserables whose manuscript he was submitting. He wrote on its cover “?” His publisher answered “!”. That is the most succonct literary correspondence in history. A publisher’s salesman said, “I often think how shocked authors would be if they listened to the book store clerk selling their books. They’ve worked a year on their book, two years, three years, maybe longer, and there it is. A word or two and a decision is made.”
Your book must match the taste of the person who will buy it. The author of the sensationalist best-seller Peyton Place said, “I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have lousy taste.”
Popular W. Somerset Maugham said that he had never met an author who admitted that people didn’t buy his book because it was dull.
If You Have a Grudge Against a Fellow Writer, Here’s What to Do
“If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Sender).
You May or May Not Have First Book Overwhelming Success, But Be Patient
Maurice Valency thought that failure is very difficult for a writer to bear, “but very few can manage the shock of early success.” P.G. Wodehouse said that success comes to a writer rather gradually, and that it is something of a shock to him or her to realize the heights to which they have risen.
Humorist Robert Benchley said, “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Your Main Goal Is Production of Text, so If You Write Very Fast, You Can Produce Lots of Books
In his life Alexandre Dumas, pere wrote 1,500 volumes. British author John Creasey and French author George Simenon each wrote more than 500 books. Earle Stanley Gardner wrote 140 books. He dictated 10,000 words of text a day and once worked on seven books at the same time.
As You Can See, Writers Lead Fascinating Lives. But Don’t Believe Them
Playwright Lillian Hellman said writers are “fancy talkers about themselves.” She said that if she had to give advice to young writers she would say, “Don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”
© 2020 David J. Rogers
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9 responses to “Advice and Other Odds and Ends on the Literary Life”
This is an entertaining and insightful blog post, David. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thank you for your comment, Janet. I’m happy you found it entertaining. That’s waht I hoped people would find it.
Take care of yourself and stay well.
This has some very amusing parts.I enjoyed it and shall return to read more deeply
Thannk you, Katherine. I’m glad you found it amusing. I had a lot of fun writing it.
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I’m sorry to be late, but delighted to find a new post from you, David. It was fun to read this with my morning coffee. I’ve saved some of the quotes to push me through this Monday. I particularly enjoyed these two:
“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business” (John Steinbeck).
“A best-seller is the gilded tomb of mediocre talent” (Logan Smith.)
You slayed me with What do geniuses talk about?
I’ve been struggling with the novel I started in November. I realize that it needs more “action” but I’ve made such a weird book of it that… Well, it’s a stumbling block. Anyway, I thought about my quirky, difficult to categorize story with some of the things you mentioned. A blogger friend is kindly doing an alpha read as I go along. He likes it despite not knowing what genre he thinks it should fit. LOL. However, the “business” part of my brain sees that as a big problem.
Sorry for this ramble. Maybe that means I should treat myself to a second cup of coffee. 😉 Hugs on the wing!
I like this post too and have done similar ones and plan to do others like it. I’m pleased with your reaction. I’m always happy to hear from you and of course to read your posts.
I wish you the best on finishing your novel. You say you’re having trouble with it. Don’t despair. I’m reminded of what happened to me when I was writing Fighting To Win. There was one part that was giving me problems. I couldn’t think of what to do with it, but I wrestled with it. I had no choice. I had to solve the problem and write a good section. It took me many drafts. None of them good enough to keep until I figured out what I should do. It turned out to be the best section, the one readers have told me is worth the entire cost of the book.
What I was doing was applying a samurai concept called kufu. Kufu means to stay with a problem, wrestle with it, come back to it time and again, being aware that there is a solution ahead of you if you persevere. Be confident about that. Don’t worry about that.
I’m sure you will solve the problem, will handle the action element, and one day kufu will tell you what kind of book you are in fact writing and everything will be clear.
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My whole life has been kufu, I think. Hopefully this time it will speak. 🙂 Hugs on the wing!
Thank you very much, Teagan. I’m happy you are skilled at solving your problems