Category Archives: History of writing


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.


I think what I love most about Pushcart’s COMPLETE ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS, edited by Bill Henderson & Andre Bernard, is that it lifts the veil of mystery between writers and the publishing world, and shows us just how human we are all are despite our attempts to become omniscient.   Mistakes get made.  Critics and editors get cranky and misunderstand an important book.  Writers insult other writers.

Any writer who is feeling timorous about submitting his or her work should consider reading this book.  Reading the nasty reviews and rejections other writers have received was an excellent antidote for self-pity.  The book also provides a peek into history, since Bill Henderson made an effort to include rotten reviews going as far back as 411 BC.

I don’t want to spoil the fun of what is inside, so instead I’ll quote from the back cover:

Alice in Wonderland was greeted with “a stiff overwrought story.”  Reviews of Moby Dick cited Melville for “tragic-comic bubble and squeak.”  Classic rejection slips were delivered to John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold: “You’re welcome to Le Carre–he hasn’t got any future,” and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,”…

My one gripe is that the book has no index, and since the excerpts are not arranged chronologically or alphabetically, I have to randomly flip around to find the author or quote I’m looking for.

This book combines the three separate Pushcart editions of ROTTEN REVIEWS, ROTTEN REVIEWS II, and ROTTEN REJECTIONS.  So you’re getting three books for the price of one.  A great bargain.

George Sand in IMPROMPTU (Portrayals of Writers)

Actress Judy Davis, striding through the streets and countryside of 1830s France, brings writer George Sand to life in the 1991 film IMPROMPTU (rated PG-13).   Written by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, the film is  loosely based on George Sand’s life (for example, Sand really did wear men’s clothing and smoke cigars).

The film succeeds in conveying the frustrations of being a woman and an artist in the 19th century.  Sand attempts to live as free as a man, but is faced with being treated as a possession by her ex-lovers.   And she has to deal with the disapproval of some about her being a woman writer (women often had to take a male pseudonym due to the societal disapproval of a woman writing).

While the relationship between Sand and Chopin is romanticized in the film, I found it uplifting to watch how Chopin comes to respect and treat Sand as an equal.  Their relationship becomes one of mutual support in their artistic endeavors.

It is also fun to watch Sand’s interactions with her editor/publisher, wheedling him for advance money.  And her determination to write every night (no matter what) results in her being treated as a hack by Alfred De Musset, who is suffering from writer’s block in the film.   Alfred’s jealousy and nastiness reminded me of a few writers with productivity problems who take their spite out on others.  Like Sand, it’s best to ignore the insults and just keep writing.

A pep talk for writers – Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE

Writing a novel can feel like slogging across a continent barefoot.  Fatigue sets in, followed by despair (i.e. “It’ll never end.”; “What’s the point?”; “I suck.”).

For those times when I feel like stopping the trek from idea to finished manuscript, I now turn to Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT (ISBN 0-915308-94-0).  Originally published in 1938, the book explores the psychological and creative aspects of the writing process.  I went looking for a copy of this book this summer after reading a brief excerpt of it in Juila Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY.

Ueland writes with verve and wit about the writing profession, and has much to say about the creative process as a writing teacher.  She also provides extensive quotes from William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh on their creative methods.

Reading her makes me feel like grabbing my laptop and writing then and there.

Here’s a quote from Chapter II:

I want to assure you with all earnestness, that no writing is a waste of time,–no creative work where the feelings, imagination, the intelligence must work.  With every sentence you write, you have learned something.  It has done you good.  It has stretched your understanding.

And for those struggling to find their “voice” as a writer, she has helpful advice to give in Chapter XI:

The only way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom.  If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one.  In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write.  It will be brilliant,–provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Ueland had a successful career as freelance writer, and was knighted in Norway for her coverage of the treason trials of Vidkun Quisling.  A friend, Carl Sandburg, considered this the best book on writing when it came out in 1938.

The rise of professional writers in Britain – John Brewer’s THE PLEASURES OF THE IMAGINATION

There are days when it can feel tough to be a writer–increasing competition from other media, the large number of people trying to enter the profession, the low pay, etc.  And yet, compared to the past, the arts have come a long way.

THE PLEASURES OF THE IMAGINATION: ENGLISH CULTURE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY by John Brewer (ISBN 0-374-23458-2) is a fascinating look into the rise of professional artists in literature, painting, music, and theater in the eighteenth century.  It is also a fun glimpse into the lives and minds of people living in Britain during the Enlightenment.  Brewer also does an excellent job of weaving the personal stories of various artists with overviews about the cultural revolutions that occurred.

If I were a writer of historical fiction set in the 1700s in Britain, this book would sit within easy reach on my reference shelf.

Also, I came away from reading this book with a much better understanding of the roots of the conflict between writers and publishers over copyright laws and contracts.