Sunday, August 18, 2013

Becoming a Writer - Sinclair Lewis "How I Wrote a Novel"

Sinclair Lewis' Main StreetImage by Krista76 via Flickr

SINCLAIR LEWIS (1885-1951)
"How I Wrote a Novel”

I have a philosophical principle, a handy and portable key to achievement, for the twenty or thirty million young Americans who at the present second are wondering how they can attain it. It applies to shoemakers as much as to authors. It is: Six times one equals six. It sounds simple and rather foolish, and it is harder to carry out than an altitude flight.

Being a professional writer, not a good one but quite a hard­working one, I hear at least once a week, "What's the trick? How can I break into the magazine game? I want to write. I've been reading your stuff, and I think I could do something like it. What must I do?"

My first answer is, 'Well, you can save a great deal of time by not reading my stuff. Read Thomas Hardy, Conrad, Anatole France. Or, if you want the younger men, look at Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Henry Mencken; and all of these astonishing young Englishmen-Walpole, Maugham, Cannan, Lawrence, and the rest."

The achievement hunter ferrets an ancient envelope out of his pocket and solemnly notes down the names, as though they were magic formulas, and I have a private fit of despair in the most convenient comer, because
young men who solemnly note down things rarely put their notes into life. And, to defend my own sex, let me say that frequently the young man in question is a young woman. One out of every three women of any leisure will, without much pressing, confide that she "wants to write" ­not to write anything in particular, but just write.
After restoring the annotated envelope to a pocket where it will be lost for keeps, he, or she, confides that he-confound those pronouns-they confide that they are peculiar, quite dif­ferent from all other humans, because, by the most extraordi­nary circumstances, they "haven't much time."
The young newspaperman boasts that after a night at the grind, he is tired. And he says it with a haughty air of being the only person on the entire earth and suburban planets who works hard enough to get tired. And a young married woman tran­quilly asserts that after a conference with cook, a bridge-tea, laboring at eating dinner, and watching the nurse put baby to bed, and is so exhausted that she cannot possibly carry out her acute ambition to write.

I want to add to recorded history the fact that there is no patent on being tired and no monopoly in it. Several people have been tired since the days of Assyria. It is not so novel a state that it is worth much publicity. When I hear of a marvelous news case of it on the part of a yearner, I sigh:
"But do you really want to write?" "Oh, yessssss!"
"Oh, it must be such a fascinating life."
"Huh!" the boorish professional grunts, "I don't see anything very fascinating about sitting before a typewriter six or seven hours a day."
"Oh, yes, but the-the joy of self-expression, and the fame." "Fame! Huh! I'll lay you nine to one that if Rudyard Kipling and Jack Dempsey arrived on the same train, Kipling wouldn't even be able to hire a taxi."
"I don't care," the yearner insists. "I think my present life is intolerably dull, and I do want to write."
"Very well then. I'll tell you the trick. You have to do only one thing: Make black marks on white paper. That little detail of writing is one that is neglected by almost all the aspirants I meet."
He—and especially she—is horribly disappointed by my cyn­icism. He-and often she-finds nothing interesting in making marks on paper. What he, she, it, they, and sometimes Wand Y, want to do is to sit dreaming purple visions, and have them auto­matically appear: (1) on a manuscript; (2) on a check from the editor. So he, and the rest of the pronouns, usually finds the same clever excuse:
"But I simply can't seem to find the time. Oh, I just lonnnnnnnnng to write, but when I sit down to it, someone always comes and disturbs me, and I'm so tired, and- Well, I always tell Adolphus that some day I'll have six months free, and I'll devote them to writing, and then I just know I'll succeed. I always say to Dolph, I know I can write better stuff than I read in all these magazines."
"Look here. Could you get an hour free every day?"
After a certain amount of bullying, they usually admit the hour. The newspaper reporter who desires to follow Irv Cobb confesses that he could make use of an hour while he is waiting for an assignment. The young housewife who wishes to produce a volume of fairy stories for children-and 96.3 per cent of all young housewives do so wish-grants that if she hustled a little with her sewing and marketing and telephoning to other house­wives, she could have an hour free.
"All right!" the discouraging philosopher concludes, "an hour a day for six days is six hours a week, twenty-five or so hours a month. Anybody who is not deaf, blind, and addicted to demen­tia praecox, can write between a hundred and a thousand words an hour. Making it a minimum of a hundred, you can do five thousand words in two months-and that is a fair-sized short story. At the maximum of a thousand, you could do a short story in a week.
"Very few writers produce more than one short story a month, in the long average, though they can use as much as they wish of twenty-four hours a day. That is because they become wea­ried of invention, of planning new stories; must spur themselves by the refreshment and recreation of real life. But that real life you are getting all day. You have, as far as time goes, just as much chance as they. If you concentrate an hour a day you can produce somewhere between half as much as, and four times as much as, a professional writer.
"Providing always-providing you can write. And providing you have enough will power to use your ability. And providing you stop deceiving yourself about not having the time!"

Six times one is six, in hours as much as in the potatoes which William is always selling to John in the problem. But you can vary the multiplication. Of those few people who cannot control an hour a day, there are probably none above the mental grade of moron who cannot get in a quarter of an hour daily. If the aspirant actually is too tired at night, he can get up a quarter of an hour earlier in the morning.
If a man wrote only twenty-five words a day, but kept that up for twelve years, he would have a full-length novel. Twelve years for one novel will seem slow to the get-literary-quick yearners. Yet most good writers toil through fifteen or twenty years of apprenticeship before they succeed, and a scholar thinks noth­ing of twenty years spent on a work of research which does well if it sells a thousand copies.
If you have it in you to produce one thundering good novel, one really big novel, just one, your place in American literature will be safe for the next hundred years. For very few even of the well-known novelists ever produce as much as one thoroughly good novel in all their lives, and still fewer produce more than one. You can rival or excel them with twenty-five words a day­if you have the ability-and if you really want to. If you haven't the ability, and if you don't violently want to, then you couldn't do it with twenty-four hours free every day.
But once you understand this principle, you must also grasp another thing: the need of concentration. Each daily hour must instantly hook on the hour of the day before. Concentration can be learned-and without any trick exercises. It is largely habit. The taxi-driver, calm and concentrated in traffic that would shatter an amateur, the policeman attending strictly to the crowd and ignoring the king driving by, the button maker serene on the job all day long-none of them are heroic exceptions, but all of them are practicing excellent concentration. It can be learned-if you want to. But for heaven's sake, if you don't suf­ficiently want to, stop yearning for the almost entirely imaginary glories of the literary career.

Now, if all of this applied only to writing, it would scarce be worth recording. But it happened to apply equally to the ambi­tion of almost every young man or woman, whether that ambition is the study of law, the designing of new types of air­planes-or of hats-the mastery of business detail, or gaining promotion and greater knowledge in your present work, your present office or shop.

A large percentage of people go on vaguely believing that they would like to be lawyers or executives, vaguely desiring to do something about it, vaguely talking about it, vaguely excusing themselves. And the years slip on, treacherous and swift and cruel; and by and by they are seventy, and the chance has gone-for want of understanding that six times one daily hour is six hours every week.

But let me tremulously endeavor to remove myself from the category of chest-pounding, imitate-me-and-you-will-be ­successful inspiration-mongers by hastening to admit that I have had many years of laziness. I have beat the job in about all the known ways. Jack Dunnigan fired me from the San Francisco Bulletin because I was a rotten reporter; and with amazing una­nimity Charley Kloeber fired me from the Associated Press. But there did come a time when I desperately saw that if I was ever going to be free to write, I must-write!
I, too, "had no time for it." I was, by now, a rather busy editor for a publishing firm. I read manuscripts, saw authors and artists, answered telephone calls from the printer, wrote adver­tising, devised devilish ways of getting publicity, from nine ­fifteen to five or six or seven, with forty miles a day of commut­ing besides. And, like the complainants of whom I complain, I was dead tired every evening-too tired to think of anything but the Krazy Kat pictures and the inviting genius of the man who invented sleeping.

So I decided that I would not have time for being tired, instead of not having time for writing.
I wrote practically all of a novel on trains, and the rest of it I wrote at times when I didn't have time to write!
About one morning a week-not oftener, I confess-I had courage enough to get up an hour earlier than usual. Our Long Island bungalow took an hour to heat after the furnace had been fed; but the kitchen was warm, and before the cook arrived from her palatial mansion I got in most of an hour of writing-with the drain board in the kitchen as my desk!
Between adjectives I made a cup of coffee on the gas range.
By request, my wife did not get up to make it for me. I wanted to concentrate on the job. And I may say that no studio-I believe there are writers who have things called studios-and no Hepplewhite chairs and Spanish tapestries and Sheraton desks ever made a better environment for writing than a drain board, with a cup of coffee steaming beside me in the sink.

There was an hour a week, at least; and that was fifty hours a year.

Commuting into New York took from thirty-five to fifty minutes. I finished the morning paper in seven or eight minutes, and after that I did not, as invariably I wanted to, gossip about golf, the water rates, and Tammany with my fellow commuters.
I looked around, got ready to be queer, hauled out a plain manila filing folder, and began to write in pencil, with the fold­er on my knee as a desk. I got from fifty to five hundred words done almost every morning.
There are many paragraphs in The Trail of the Hawk-prob­ably the only arousing ones in that not very interesting novel­— which were composed in order to give a good bewildered time to some shoe merchant or broker sitting beside me in the train. At first their ponderously cautious curiosity bothered me, but as I gradually got the habit of concentration, it amused me.

Returning on the train at night, I was usually too tired to write again, but sometimes I did manage five minutes. And when I lunched alone I found that I could plan two or three days' work without having to "find time." I don't know that thinking about story plots took any longer than meditating on the impossibility of finding time to think about plots.
In the evening, after dinner and playing and loafing and per­haps reading a manuscript not finished in office hours, I could usually capture another hour or two. Oh, I didn't want to work. I was tired. I longed to go to bed. But I didn't let myself do it till midnight.
Nor did Saturday afternoon have to be devoted entirely to tramping or tennis or a swim. I compromised. I was home by one; wrote for two hours; then enjoyed ten times more the beautiful freedom of a hike across the Long Island hills.

A lot of you, my dear young friends, whose candid faces I see here before me tonight-and let me say that I am always glad to get back to your beautiful little city, the loveliest spot on my entire Lyceum circuit-many of you will endeavor to avoid my prosaic principle of six times one is six by turning virtuous; by quoting some of my predecessors on this platform, and stating in pure and ringing accents that you can't write, or read law, or design frocks, or study for promotion in the office, at six-thirty A.M., on the drain board, because that would be your present job.
I have yet to learn why excited, future-reaching, adventurous work at your real ambition should be more injurious to your job than sitting up half the night to play poker, or gossiping in a smoke-filled room till you are a pulp of aimlessness, or painstak­ingly cooking fudge, or yawning at a sentimental movie full of domestic virtues and kitties, or industriously reading the social column in a newspaper.

Oh, I've been guilty. I've dawdled through the movies, sat talking about things that did not interest me with people who bored me-because it was too much trouble to shake them off and go home. The last time I committed these two faults in one evening was something less than twenty-four hours before strik­ing out these majestic chords on the typewriter.

But at least I have learned this: When I have not done the things I thought I wanted to do; if, in the future, I shall not do the things I now think I want to do, the one excuse I may not use is: "I can't find the time." I have, and you have, twenty-four hours a day. And that is, so far as I can find out, approximately the same amount of daily time that was granted to Michel­angelo, Pasteur, Shakespeare, or Ty Cobb.
"I want to write." Well then, hang it-write!
If you decide that the one way to do the job is to do it, kindly get through it without the use of any of the following words:
Pep, punch, jazz, hustle, snap, virile, and, most of all, red­ blooded.
These words are the symbols of what may well be the worst fault in American philosophy-a belief that a shallow appear­ance of energy actually is energy. In begging people to use the selvages and scraps of their time, I wish them to understand that I am not advocating the Pep creed: that religion of making a lot of noise about what you're going to do as soon as you can take time off from making a lot of noise.
There is no Pep, there is no phonographic bellowing of the cant phrases of the marketplace, in a quiet, resolute desire for daily concentration. In fact, the man who pounds his desk, and scatters papers all over the floor, and yells at the telephone oper­ator, and bursts into flights of optimism, has no time to settle down to the job.
To the man with a sense of humor, this clamorous insistence on violently hustling nowhere in particular, and standing on one's hind legs to advocate that form of activity as contributing to the welfare of the nation, is simply impossible. To the man with a passionate desire for beauty, with a longing to build ­whether it is to build novels or stone walls or shoes-there is only shrinking disgust at the yapping of the man whose entire creed is: "What you guys want to do is to jazz up the business and keep the iron men doing quick turnovers."
The real disciple of success is diligent about the Lord's affairs, yet he is curiously gentle. He uses his reason. And he does something more subtle than merely spending his spare quarter­ hours in working for advancement. He thinks. Most people do not actively think about anything beyond the immediate details of food and the job. For it is not easy to detach one's self from pleased self-approbation and to see clearly one's relation to the round of life.

The builder, and he may be a builder in business as much as in any art, concentrates on his building, yet sees all of life expanding, as circle beyond circle of possible achievement is disclosed. He will neither whine, "I can't find time," nor, at the other extreme, will he pound his own back and bellow, "Oh, I'm one grand little worker." His idol is neither the young man sigh­ing over a listless pipe, nor the human calliope. He works, per­sistently, swiftly, without jar.

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