“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.”
By Maria Popova
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” But Anderson himself already had a great deal to teach about what it means to be an artist. Around that time, he met young William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), who considered himself lucky to be “uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions.” Anderson recognized the kernel of immense talent in the young writer and took him under his wing. Decades later, Faulkner would remember Anderson as his sole important mentor in a beautiful 1953 piece originally published in The Atlantic as “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation” and subsequently included in the Faulkner anthology Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (public library) under his original typescript title, “A Note on Sherwood Anderson.”
Faulkner reflects on the most important thing Anderson taught him about being a writer:
I learned that, to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born; that to be an American and a writer, one does not necessarily have to pay lip-service to any conventional American image… You had only to remember what you were.
He quotes Anderson’s own words to him as a young writer — words of immense timeliness nearly a century later; words that apply as much to literature as they do to any wakeful artist’s task:
America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning… All America asks is to look at it and listen to it and understand it if you can. Only the understanding ain’t important either: the important thing is to believe in it even if you don’t understand it, and then try to tell it, put it down. It won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper, and something else to try to understand and tell. And that one probably wont be exactly right either, but there is a next time to that one, too. Because tomorrow America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.
To believe, to believe in the value of purity, and to believe more. To believe not in just the value, but the necessity for fidelity and integrity; lucky is that man whom the vocation of art elected and chose to be faithful to it, because the reward for art does not wait on the postman.
Faulkner clearly kept his mentor’s words close to heart as he grew into himself as a writer. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature a quarter century after meeting Anderson, he echoed the heart of this abiding advice in his spectacular acceptance speech, in which he asserted that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson advised a blind girl aspiring to be a writer, “you will interest other people.” Six years earlier, around Valentine’s Day of 1952, a sixteen-year-old self-described “aspiring Young Writer” by the name of Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) — by that point one of the most famous writers in the world — hoping he might answer several questions about the creative process, what it takes to be a writer, and how he himself developed his creative faculties.
Unlike Carson and unlike Albert Einstein, who also frequently replied to fan letters, particularly those from young people, Eliot rarely did. But something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His response — thoroughly warm and just the right amount of wry, full of simply worded wisdom — may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — that wonderful, forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Provided by his Eliot’s, Valerie, his response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.
Nearly four decades after he stunned the world with his masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and four years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Eliot writes to the young aspiring writer:
Dear Miss Alice Quinn,
I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter, and I am glad that you are at a Catholic school.
I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.
In consonance with Carson, Eliot adds:
My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.
Alice apparently asked Eliot about some of the criticism aimed at his poetry and his person — the perennial lazy accusation that anything sophisticated is automatically elitist — for he reflects:
I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.
He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:
One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics, and the essentials of the Christian Faith, that is the right beginning.
I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.
“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people.”
By Maria Popova
Many of the titans of literature have left, alongside a body of work that models powerful writing, abiding advice on the craft that examines the source of that power. Unrivaled among them in the combination of cultural impact and sheer splendor of prose is Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) — the Promethean writer and marine biologist whose 1962 masterwork of moral courage, Silent Spring, ignited the modern environmental movement.
Nowhere does Carson’s writing philosophy, of which she never published a formal statement, come to life more vividly than in the 1972 out-of-print treasure The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work (public library) — a portrait of Carson, drawn from her previously unpublished papers and letters, by Paul Brooks, who worked closely with her as editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin during the publication of The Edge of the Sea and Silent Spring.
Writing is a lonely occupation at best. Of course there are stimulating and even happy associations with friends and colleagues, but during the actual work of creation the writer cuts himself off from all others and confronts his subject alone. He* moves into a realm where he has never been before — perhaps where no one has ever been. It is a lonely place, even a little frightening.
In a sentiment that calls to mind choreographer Martha Graham’s notion of the “divine dissatisfaction” driving all creative work, Carson adds:
No writer can stand still. He continues to create or he perishes. Each task completed carries its own obligation to go on to something new.
Like Einstein, Carson made an unwearying effort to answer as much as she could of the voluminous fan mail she received, but her most touching correspondence is with a young aspiring writer by the name of Beverly Knecht — a blind girl hospitalized with what would turn out to be a terminal illness. After devouring The Edge of the Sea on Talking Books — an early audiobook program initiated by the Library of Congress and the American Foundation for the Blind in the 1930s — Beverly sent Carson a letter of affectionate appreciation. Carson wrote back:
I hope you can realize the very deep and lasting pleasure your letter gave me. In my writing, I have always tried not to lean on illustrations (of which most of my books have had few) but to create in words an image that would register clearly on the eyes of the mind. You make me feel I may have succeeded.
In a letter to another young woman with whom Carson felt a deep kinship of spirit, she returns to the subject of loneliness as a necessary condition for creative work:
You are wise enough to understand that being “a little lonely” is not a bad thing. A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer. But there are also rewards that are rich and peculiarly satisfying.
More than anything, however, Carson held up work ethic and integrity of vision as the most vital requirements for being a successful writer. In a sentiment which James Baldwin would come to echo decades later in his thoughts on the relationship between talent and discipline, and which Hemingway had articulated in his advice on the art of revision, she tells her young correspondent:
Given the initial talent … writing is largely a matter of application and hard work, of writing and rewriting endlessly, until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible. For me, that usually means many, many revisions.
Carson adds a thought that parallels my own animating ethos since the inception of Brain Pickings more than a decade ago:
If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.
In previously contemplating what constitutes great nonfiction, I placed writers in a hierarchy of explainers, elucidators, and enchanters, the latter class being exceedingly rare and exceedingly rewarding to read. Carson was the twentieth century’s science-enchanter par excellence, whose writing was governed by her belief in “the magic combination of factual knowledge and deeply felt emotional response.” Today’s finest science writers — authors like Oliver Sacks, Janna Levin, Alan Lightman, Diane Ackerman, and James Gleick, who convey the inherent poetry of the universe in uncommonly enchanting prose — have some of Carson’s blood coursing through the pulse-beat of their books.
Carson, who made an art of illuminating nature beyond scientific fact, resented the notion that science is somehow separate from life. Our only means of upending the conventions and belief systems we resent is by modeling superior alternatives, and that is precisely what Carson did with her 1937 masterpiece Undersea, which pioneered a new way of writing about science with a strong lyrical sensibility, revealing the native poetry of nature. The piece became the seed for Carson’s 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award. In her acceptance speech, she took head on the obtuse convention — one enduring to this day — that writing about science belongs in a special compartment of literature:
The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.
The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.
With an eye to the deliberate stylistic choices she made in how she wrote about the sea — choices highly unusual for their time, which steered nonfiction toward an epoch-making new aesthetic direction — she adds:
My own guiding purpose was to portray the subject of my sea profile with fidelity and understanding. All else was secondary. I did not stop to consider whether I was doing it scientifically or poetically; I was writing as the subject demanded.
The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.
She took up the subject again in a letter written a few years after the publication of The Sea Around Us:
The writer must never attempt to impose himself upon his subject. He must not try to mold it according to what he believes his readers or editors want to read. His initial task is to come to know his subject intimately, to understand its every aspect, to let it fill his mind. Then at some turning point the subject takes command and the true act of creation begins… The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.
The heart of it is something very complex, that has to do with ideas of destiny, and with an almost inexpressible feeling that I am merely an instrument through which something has happened — that I’ve had little to do with it myself.
She would then tell her beloved, Dorothy Freeman, in the same letter:
As for the loneliness — you can never fully know how much your love and companionship have eased that.
During her final revisions of Silent Spring, as she navigated the anguishing late stages of metastatic breast cancer, Carson addressed a friend’s concern that the book’s focus on pesticides would eclipse the splendor of the planet she was trying to protect. Acknowledging for the first and only time the dual motive power of moral outrage and fidelity to beauty that had animated her as she composed her masterpiece, she wrote:
I myself never thought the ugly facts would dominate, and I hope they don’t. The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind — that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done. I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could — if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature. But now I can believe I have at least helped a little. It would be unrealistic to believe that one book could bring a complete change.
Carson died eighteen months after Silent Spring was published and never lived to see herself proven wrong as it catalyzed the modern environmental movement by mobilizing the public conscience and effecting major government reform in environmental policy — nothing less than “a complete change” in culture and consciousness, proof that unrelenting idealism is in the end the mightiest realism.
Every once in a while, amid the serious and often stern prose comprising the canon of great writers’ advice on writing, there glimmers an offering of wisdom no less weighty yet delivered with wondrous levity.
Collins employs his usual method of using warm wit to give shape to wisdom of a higher order — in this case, the awareness that we are embodied creatures whose psychological states are deeply influenced by our physical environment; material orderliness, he reminds us, fosters mental orderliness, and a mind unassaulted by chaos is a mind free to create.
ADVICE TO WRITERS
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.