Saturday, September 7, 2013

Becoming a Writer: Jack London's Advice to Budding Writers

Portrait photograph of Jack LondonImage via Wikipedia

JACK LONDON (1876-1916)

An autodidact, London began writing at the age of twenty-one, when he was unable to find any other type of work after dropping out of the University of California at Berkeley. After The Call of the Wild in 1903 achieved great success, he went on to write more than fifty books of fiction and nonfiction.  

Becoming a writer

To Jack London writing is a lifetime learning—a long apprenticeship. In the following essay and four letters we find plenty of writing advice to budding writers.
The literary hack, the one who is satisfied to tum out "pot boilers" for the rest of his or her life, will save time and vexation by passing this article by. It contains no hints as to the disposing of manuscript, the vagaries of the blue-pencil, the filing of mate­rial, nor the innate perversity of adjectives and adverbs. Petrified "Pen-trotters," pass on! This is for the writer—no mat­ter how much hack-work he is turning out just now—who cherishes ambitions and ideals, and yearns for the time when agri­cultural newspapers and home magazines no more may occupy the major portion of his visiting list.

How are you, dear sir, madam, or miss, to achieve distinction in the field you have chosen? Genius? Oh, but you are no genius. If you were you would not be reading these lines. Genius is irresistible; it casts aside all
shackles and restraints; it cannot be held down. Genius is a rara avis, not to be found flut­tering in every grove as are you and I. But then you are talent­ed? Yes, in an embryonic sort of way. The biceps of Hercules was a puny affair when he rolled about in swaddling-clothes. So with you—your talent is undeveloped. If it had received proper nutrition and were well matured, you would not be wasting your time over this. And if you think your talent really has attained its years of discretion, stop right here. If you think it has not, then by what methods do you think it will?

By being original, you at once suggest; then add, and by con­stantly strengthening that originality. Very good. But the ques­tion is not merely being original—the veriest tyro knows that much—but now can you become original? How are you to cause the reading world to look eagerly for your work? to force the publishers to pant for it? You cannot expect to become original by following the blazed trail of another, by reflecting the radia­tions of someone else's Originality. No one broke ground for Scott or Dickens, for Poe or Longfellow, for George Eliot or Mrs. Humphrey Ward, for Stevenson and Kipling, Anthony Hope, Stephen Crane, and many others of the lengthening list. Yet publishers and public pave clamored for their ware. They conquered Originality. And how? By not being silly weather­cocks, turning to every breeze that flows. They, with the count­less failures, started even in the race; the world with its traditions was their common heritage. But in one thing they dif­fered from the failures; they drew straight from the source, rejecting the material which filtered through other hands. They had no use for the conclusions and the conceits of others. They must put the stamp of "self' upon their work-a trade mark of far greater value than copyright. So, from the world and its tra­ditions—which is another term for knowledge and culture they drew at first hand, certain materials, which they built into an individual philosophy of life.

Now this phrase, "a philosophy of life," will not permit of pre­cise definition. In the first place it does not mean a philosophy on anyone thing. It has no especial concern with anyone of such questions as the past and future travail of the soul, the dou­ble and single standard of morals for the sexes, the economic independence of women, the possibility of acquired characters being inherited, spiritualism, reincarnation, temperance, etc. But it is concerned with all of them, in a way, and with all the other ruts and stumbling blocks which confront the man or woman who really lives. In short, it is an ordinary working phi­losophy of life.

Every permanently successful writer has possessed this phi­losophy. It was a view peculiarly his own. It was a yardstick by which he measured all things which came to his notice. By it he focused the characters he drew, the thoughts he uttered. Because of it his work was sane, normal, and fresh. It was some­thing new, something the world wished to hear. It was his, and not a garbled mouthing of things the world had already heard.
But make no mistake. The possession of such a philosophy does not imply a yielding to the didactic impulse. Because one may have pronounced views on any question is no reason that he assault the public ear with a novel with a purpose, and for that matter, no reason that he should not. But it will be noticed, how­ever, that this philosophy of the writer rarely manifests itself in a desire to sway the world to one side or the other of any prob­lem. Some few great writers have been avowedly didactic, while some, like Robert Louis Stevenson, in a manner at once bold and delicate, have put themselves almost wholly into their work, and done so without once imparting the idea that they had something to teach.

And it must be understood that such a working philosophy enables the writer to put not only himself into his work, but to put that which is not himself but which is viewed and weighted by himself. Of none is this more true than of that triumvirate of intellectual giants—Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac. Each was himself, and so much so, that there is no point of comparison.

Each had drawn from this store his own working philosophy. And by this individual standard they accomplished their work. At birth they must have been very similar to all infants; but somehow, from the world and its traditions, they acquired some­thing which their fellows did not. And this was neither more nor less than something to say.

Now you, young writer, have you something to say, or do you merely think you have something to say? If you have, there is nothing to prevent your saying it. If you are capable of thinking thoughts which the world would like to hear, the very form of the thinking is the expression. If you think clearly, you will write clearly; if your thoughts are worthy, so will your writing be wor­thy. But if your expression is poor, it is because your thought is poor, if narrow, because you are narrow. If your ideas are con­fused and jumbled, how can you expect a lucid utterance? If your knowledge is sparse or unsystematized, how can your words be broad or logical? And without the strong central thread of a working philosophy, how can you make order out of chaos? how can your foresight and insight be clear? how can you have a quantitative and qualitative perception of the relative importance of every scrap of knowledge you possess? And with­out all this how can you possibly be yourself? how can you have something fresh for the jaded ear of the world?

The only way of gaining this philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowl­edge and culture of the world. What do you know of the world beneath its bubbling surface? What can you know of the bub­bles unless you comprehend the forces at work in the depths of the cauldron? Can an artist paint an "Ecce Homo" without hav­ing a conception of the Hebrew myths and history, and all the varied traits which form collectively the character of the Jew, his beliefs and ideals, his passions and his pleasures, his hopes and fears! Can a musician compose a "Ride of the Valkyries" and know nothing of the great Teutonic epics? So with you—you must study. You must come to read the face of life with under­standing. To comprehend the characters and phases of any movement, you must know the spirit which moves to action individuals and peoples, which gives birth and momentum to great ideas, which hangs a John Brown or crucifies a Savior. You must have your hand on the inner pulse of things. And the sum of all this will be your working philosophy, by which, in turn, you will measure, weigh, and balance, and interpret to the world. It is this stamp of personality of individual view, which is known as individuality.
What do you know of history, biology, evolution, ethics, and the thousand and one branches of knowledge? "But," you object, "I fail to see how such things can aid me in the writing of a romance or a poem." Ah, but they will. They broaden your thought, length­en out your vistas, drive back the bounds of the field in which you work. They give you your philosophy, which is like unto no other man's philosophy, force you to original thought.
"But the task is stupendous," you protest; "I have no time."

Others have not been deterred by its immensity. The years of your life are at your own disposal. Certainly you cannot expect to master it all, but in the proportion you do master it, just so will your efficiency increase, just so will you command the attention of your fellows. Time! When you speak of its lack you mean lack of economy in its use. Have you really learned how to read? How many insipid short stories and novels do you read in the course of a year, endeavoring either to master the art of story-writing or of exercising your critical faculty? How many magazines do you read clear through from beginning to end? There's time for you, time you have been wasting with a fool's prodigality-time which can never come again. Learn to dis­criminate in the selection of your reading and learn to skim judi­ciously. You laugh at the doddering graybeard who reads the daily paper, advertisements and all. But is it less pathetic, the spectacle you present in trying to breast the tide of current fic­tion? But don't shun it. Read the best, and the best only. Don't finish a tale simply because you have commenced it. Remember that you are a writer, first, last and always. Remember that these are the mouthings of others, and if you read them exclusively, that you may garble them; you will have nothing else to write about. Time! If you cannot find time, rest assured that the world will not find time to listen to you.
Glen Ellen, Calif. Sept. 28, 1913
Dear friend Jess Dorman:

In reply to your of Sept. 25, 1913. Assuming, to quote you, that you "have in mind an original virile story," that you are "capable of writing it," I should say, if you wrote it, at the rate of 1000 words a day, and sold it as an unknown at an unknown's price (which would be at least 2c for such a virile, original, well-written story), I leave the arithmetic to you.
If you are earning more than $20 a day, then leave it alone; if you are earning less than $20 a day, write the story.
Please know that I am answering your letter according to the very rigid stipulations that you laid down to me. Since, as you say, you know my career, you must know that I worked many a long month nineteen hours a day, without sleep, and sold a great deal of my stuff at 75c per 100 words for stories that were not original, that were not virile, that were not well written.
I plugged. Can you plug this way for 19 hours a day?
You say you cannot so plug. If you say truth, well, far be in from me to advise you to tackle such a game.
If you think you can jump in right now, without any apprenticeship, and lay bricks as well as a four, five, or six years' apprenticed brick­layer; if you think you can jump in on the floor and nail on shoes on ten horses as well as a man who has served a three, four, or five years' apprenticeship at shoeing horses on the floor; if you think you can jump in and nail laths, or spread plaster, or do concrete work, without previous experience, better or as well as the men who have served their three, four, and five years of apprenticeship;—in short, if you think that a vastly better—paid trade than that, namely, the writing game, can be achieved in your first short story not yet written, or long story not yet written, why go ahead my boy and jump to it, and I'll pat you on the back-pat you on the back! the world will crush you in for the great genius that you are if you can do such a thing. In the mean­time have a little patience and learn the trade.
If you know my career, you know that I am a brass-tack man. And I have given you brass tacks right here. If you can beat all the rest of us, without serving your apprenticeship, go to it. Far be it from us to advise you.

Sincerely yours,
Jack London
Oakland, Calif. Oct. 26, 1914
Dear Max Fedder:

In reply to yours of recent date undated, and returning herewith your Manuscript. First of all, let me tell you that as a psychologist and as one who has been through the mill, I enjoyed your story for its psy­chology and point of view. Honestly and frankly, I did not enjoy it for its literary charm or value. In the first place, it has little literary value and practically no literary charm. Merely because you have got some­thing to say that may be of interest to others does not free you from making all due effort to express that something in the best possible medium and form. Medium and form you have utterly neglected.
Anent the foregoing paragraph, what is to be expected of any lad of twenty, without practice, in knowledge of medium and form? Heavens on earth, boy, it would take you five years to serve your apprenticeship and become a skilled blacksmith. Will you dare to say that you have spent, not five years, but as much as five months of unimpeachable, unremitting toil in trying to learn the artisan's tools of a professional writer who can sell his stuff to the magazines and receive hard cash for same? Of course you cannot; you have not done it: And yet, you should be able to reason on the face of it that the only explanation for the fact that successful writers receive such large fortunes is because very few who desire to write become successful writers. If it takes five years work to become a skilled blacksmith, how many years of work intensi­fied into nineteen hours a day, so that one year counts for five-how many years of such work, studying medium and form, art and artisan­ship, do you think a man, with native talent and something to say, required in order to reach a place in the world of letters where he received a thousand dollars cash iron money per week?
I think you get the drift of the point I am trying to make. If a fellow harnesses himself to a star of $lOOO week, he has to work proportion­ately harder than if he harnesses himself to a little glowworm of $20.00 a week. The only reason there are more successful blacksmiths in the world than successful writers, is that it is much easier, and requires far less hard work to become a successful blacksmith than does it to become a successful writer.
It cannot be possible that you, at twenty, should have done the work at writing that would merit you success at writing. You have not begun your apprenticeship yet. The proof of it is the fact that you dared to write this manuscript, "A Journal of One Who Is to Die." Had you made any sort of study of what is published in the magazines you would have found that your short story was of the sort that never was published in the magazines. If you are going to write for success and money, you must deliver to the market marketable goods. Your short story is not marketable goods, and had you taken half a dozen evenings off and gone into a free reading room and read all the stories published in the current magazines, you would have learned in advance that your short story was not marketable goods.
Dear lad, I'm talking to you straight from the shoulder. Remember one very important thing: Your ennui of twenty, is your ennui of twen­ty. You will have various other and complicated ennuis before you die. I tell you this, who have been through the ennui of sixteen as well as the ennui of twenty; and the boredom, and the blaseness, and utter wretchedness of the ennui of twenty-five, and of thirty. And I yet live, am growing fat, am very happy, and laugh a large portion of my wak­ing hours. You see, the disease has progressed so much further with me than with you that I, as a battle-scarred survivor of the disease, look upon your symptoms as merely the preliminary adolescent symptoms. Again, let me tell you that I know them, that I had them, and just as I had much worse afterward of the same sort, so much worse is in store for you. In the meantime, if you want to succeed at a well-paid game, prepare yourself to do the work.
There's only one way to make a beginning, and that is to begin; and begin with hard work, and patience, prepared for all the disappoint­ments that were Martin Eden's before he succeeded—which were mine before I succeeded—because I merely appended to my fictional character, Martin Eden, my own experiences in the writing game.
Any time you are out here in California, I should be glad to have you come to visit me on the ranch. I can meet you to the last limit of brass tacks, and hammer some facts of life into you that possibly so far have escaped your own experience.
Sincerely yours,
Jack London
Glen Ellen, Calif. Dec. 11, 1914
My dear Miss Andersen:

In my opinion, three positive things are necessary for success as a writer. First a study and knowledge of literature as it is commercially produced today.
Second, a knowledge of life, and
Third, a working philosophy of life.
Negatively, I would suggest that the best preparation for authorship is a stem refusal to accept blindly the canons of literary art as laid down by teachers of high school English and teachers of university English and composition. .
The average author is lucky, I mean the average successful author IS lucky, if he makes twelve hundred to two thousand dollars a year.

Many successful authors earn in various ways from their writings as high as twenty thousand dollars a year and there are some authors, rare ones, who make from fifty to seventy-five thousand dollars a year from their writings; and some of the most successful authors in some of their most successful years have made as high as a hundred thousand dollars or two hundred thousand dollars.
Personally, it strikes me that the one great special advantage of authorship as a means of livelihood is that it gives one more freedom than is given any person in business or in the various other professions, The author's advice and business is under his hat and he can go any­where and write anywhere as the spirit moves him.
Thanking you for your good letter,
Sincerely yours,
Jack London
Glen Ellen, Calif. Feb. 5, 1915
My dear Ethel Jennings:

In reply to yours of January 12th, 1915: By the way, January 12th, 1915 was my birthday-39 years old, if you please.
I am returning you herewith your manuscript. First of all, just a few words as to your story. A reader who knew nothing about you and who read your story in a book or magazine would wonder for a long time after beginning as to what part of the world was the locality of your story. You should have worked in artistically, and as a germane part of the story, right near the start, the locality of the story.
Your story, really, had no locality. Your story had no place as being distinctively different from any other place of the earth's surface. This is your first mistake in the story.
Let me tell you another mistake which I get from your letter, name­ly that you wrote this story at white heat. Never write any story at white heat. Hell is kept warm by unpublished manuscripts that were written at white heat.
Develop your locality. Get in your local color. Develop your charac­ters. Make your characters real to your readers. Get out of yourself and into your reader's minds and know what impression your readers are getting from your written words. Always remember that you are not writing for yourself but that you are writing for your readers. In con­nection with this let me recommend to you Herbert Spencer's "philosophy of Style." You should be able to find this essay, "The Philosophy of Style," in Herbert Spencer's collected works in any pub­lic library. •
On page 3 of your manuscript you stop and tell the reader how awful it is for a woman to live with a man outside of wedlock. I am per­fectly willing to grant that it is awful for a woman to live with a man outside of wedlock, but as an artist I am compelled to tell you for heav­en's sake, don't stop your story in order to tell your reader how awful it is. Let your reader get this sense of awfulness from your story as your story goes on.
Further I shall not go with you in discussing your manuscript with you except to tell you that no magazine or newspaper in the United States would accept your story as it now stands.
It has long been a habit of mine to have poems typed off in dupli­cate which I may send to my friends. I am sending you a few samples of said poems that I have on hand at the present time. I am sending them to you in order that you may study them carefully and try to know the fineness of utterance, the new and strong and beautiful way of expressing old, eternal things which always appear apparently as new things to new eyes who try to convey what they see to the new generations.
I am enclosing you also a letter to a young writer, a letter that I was compelled to write the other day. His situation is somewhat different from yours and yet the same fundamental truth and conditions under­run his situation and your situation. In line with this let me suggest that you study always the goods that are being bought by the magazines. These goods that the magazines publish are the marketable goods. If you want to sell such goods. you must write marketable goods. Any time that you are down in this part of California look up Mrs. London and me on the ranch and I can tell you more in ten minutes than I can write you in ten years.
Sincerely yours,
Jack London
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