The Depiction of Life
by The Editor Company
There's only one way to learn how to write, and that is by writing. There's only one subject to study, and that is life. There's only one standpoint to view it from—your own.
You have seen it written or heard it said that the study of great writers is a prime essential. You have been told to read So-and-so for perspicuity and Some-one-else for style. This is well enough in its way; but if it be all your education in the art of writing, the result will be poor indeed. You will be a feeble echo of great men, viewing the world from their standpoint, never realizing that their greatness consisted in having a standpoint of their own.
To be as great, you must have a standpoint that belongs to no one else, but only to yourself.
How are you to gain that standpoint?
Daily you go to town, unobservant, seeing nothing. Daily you meet the same people on the street, and bid them the same "Good-day." Daily you pass the same scenes along the same course, and never know that you pass them. This is your life, the life of most men and women, running like a wheel in a rut, along a changeless course.
Change your attitude. Rouse yourself. Look about you, and observe. Look at the world with your own eyes, and listen to it with your own ears. Do your own thinking. Go down into the streets, into the market places, into the homes, and hear and see for yourself. Study the world about you, and look at it with new eyes. Study these people you meet. Study these houses you pass. In what words can you convey to an utter stranger the clearest picture of them? What interest can you weave about them? What romance does your suddenly awakened discernment find behind their apparent commonplace?Ninety-nine men out of a hundred will describe a house in the same terms. It is a frame house, and old, painted yellow, with red shutters and a green porch. This is doubtless a correct description of the house in question. It is also and equally a correct description of thousands of other houses. The hundredth man will describe that house in words which will mark it indelibly as separate and distinct from all other houses. There will be no mistaking the house he describes for any other. Men who have seen it will recognize it. Men who have not seen it will have a clear and vivid picture of it.
That hundredth man knows how to write.
You have looked far afield for that great romance of yours. Know you not that it awaits you right here, at home, in your quiet country town? You say there is no romance where you dwell, that it is all commonplace. To thousands of those who lived amid them there was nothing but commonplace in the Kentucky hemp fields, but James Lane Allen saw with clearer eyes. Hall Caine found romance in his own Isle of Man, which thousands of its people will consider commonplace; and Mark Twain found it on the Mississippi—and Alice Hegan Rice found it in the "cabbage patch." Westcott was a country banker; he wrote of what his neighbors called the commonplaces of banking; "David Harum" was the book of the year. Dickens wandered the streets of London as a boy, or strayed along by English hedgerows. He met the kind of people that live around us every day. Thousands of writers in his time disdained those scenes as prosaic and those characters as commonplace, and, going far afield for their themes, wrote, and were forgotten. Dickens stayed in the London streets, and amid the English hedgerows and with the people he knew. He wrote of them, and he and they are immortal.
Daily new stars shine forth in the sky of literary success. You look, and see men and women who have graduated from the store, or the newspaper, or the office, or the factory, or the street. For you have been laboring, with blind diligence, all these years, sticking stamps on envelopes to be sent away and paying postage on envelopes that return equally laden; and wondering why you never win. It would pay you to take a half hour's holiday from these tasks, and reason this question out with yourself. These newcomers are men of affairs, they write of a world they know, the world in which they have lived.You know how vivid your friends' letters are. The illiterate country boy has gone down into the great city to make his fortune, and writes home to you. His grammar is bad, perhaps, but as you read you understand. You feel the loneliness, you see the desolate glitter of the city streets at night, and hear the mournful whirr of the trolley cars. For the boy in the great city is lonely beyond denying, and writes from his heart. He writes with no thought of style; his words are intended for one to whom the writer is all and style is nothing. Yet how vivid is the picture, and how true.
Think of this when next you write, and let your writing be from your heart. Lay aside your craving for style. Forget everything save your story. Let it permeate you, till it is part of your very soul. Then, and then only, can you write.
You remember that diary you started when you "entered on" your "literary career." It was full of your hopes and dreams; it was to be a guide to your biographer when, in a year or so, you had attained to fame immortal. Fame was long in coming, however, and the biographer forgot to call. You let that diary slide, by and by. It took too much time. It interfered too much with that "stub pen and eight hours' steady work every day" that Eugene Field prescribed for you.That prescription has grown trite in the many years since it was first given; and triteness is a curse. Here is a modern one:
"A typewriter, and fifteen minutes every night."
Athletes will tell you that it is by regular exercise, perhaps only a few minutes daily, that the muscles are best developed. Ten minutes every day will do more than ten hours with intervals of a week between them. It is just the same with the power to write. Regular practice, if only for a few minutes daily, will work wonders.
Here comes eventide. Pause, and glance back over the day. Take fifteen minutes—no more—to tell of something you have seen or lived. Tell it briefly—the briefer the better—but tell it as vividly as you can.
That was a glorious drive you had over hill and dale—but can you depict its glory ? Can you tell a stranger all about it; can you thrill him with the joy of life, of the blue June sky, the open air, the sunshine, and the freedom of God's great out-of-doors? Try it. Trying takes but a few minutes, and you will find it worth while.Maybe, when that first story is told, you will be dissatisfied with the telling. What you write may fall far short of what you have lived. If you live as you should, it always will fall short. Don't worry over it. Instead try to-morrow to picture in a new fashion that old, familiar, commonplace office where you have worked so long, day by day, that you've actually forgotten what it looks like. Try to give your reader, even if that reader be none save yourself, a description that is not a dry-as-dust catalogue, but a living picture.
Try it. Try the next night, and the next, and the next. Try to tell the story of your commonplace world as no one else would tell it. Tell about Main Street on a market day. Depict the dago navvies at work on the new railroad. Show us the fisherman, "lazying" all through the sunny afternoon on the broken-down wharf by the river-bank. Tell about the life you see at home; tell about the life you see when you journey afar. Call your writing a diary, a journal, an autobiography, a notebook, if you will; write it for yourself, or your friends—or for the editors, if it is good enough—but write something that is yours and yours only. Go down and meet the world wherever the world is to be seen; look it in the face with keen and honest eyes; see, and remember what you sec. Go down into the market place with its barter, the streets with their busy hum, the factories with their din and clamor, and the fields with their reapers at work in the harvest, and look at them with eyes that see, and as you pass through them, listen with ears attuned to catch their music. Live! Then perhaps you'll catch the essence of things, that elusive something whose possession makes men great, that a few of us catch now and then.
Live! Fill your word-pictures with life, till those who read will thrill with its glow and color. Live! Live!