GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION, edited by James Daley

The title says it all.  GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION:  FROM MARK TWAIN TO JOYCE CAROL OATES  is a book I’ve wished existed for several years now.  Imagine my joy when I discovered that James Daley had edited together a collection of essays by famous 19th & 20th century writers from North America and Great Britain.  I consider the book a major bargain at a cover price of only $8.95 from Dover Publications.

The list of writers in the book reads like a who’s who:  Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Kate Chopin, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, Eudora Welty, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood.

This is not a “how to” book on writing.  It’s more a broad survey about what famous writers in North America and Great Britain have thought about the art of writing over the last two hundred years.  The essays vary from simple advice to new writers, to complex analyses of style.   So each reader will find that a different set of essays appeal most to him or her.  There is something here for everyone–no matter where they are in their journey as a writer.

For me on my first reading of the book, Sinclair Lewis’ “How I Wrote A Novel On The Train And Beside The Kitchen Sink” was the one that spoke strongest to me this time.   I am glad I purchased this book so that I can reread this essay at my leisure.    I’ll share a sample, but I encourage reading the entire essay to savor Lewis’ acerbic commentary.

…”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 W and 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…”

Mr. Lewis then goes on, in a blunt manner, to demonstrate the inherent weakness of this excuse.  As far as he’s concerned, one needs only 1 hour day of writing, six days a week, to get started as a writer.   And if one can’t get an hour, then seize whatever is available, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.    For the writer who writes 15 minutes a day, gets far ahead of the wanna-be writer who does zero.

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