Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Horace

IWC’s July series ends with the poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), whose full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Although fashions have changed over the years, the central principles for writing poetry have not. These quotes come from Horace’s essay on the art of writing poetry, titled “The Art of Poetry to the Pisos.”

     It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep. If you would have me weep you must first express the passion of grief yourself; then, Telephus or Peleus, you misfortunes hurt me: if you pronounce the parts assigned you ill, I shall either fall asleep or laugh.

     * * *

     As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light; the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated.

     * * *

     It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].

[BLOGMASTER'S NOTE: The bracketed words in the last quote were in the original translation, presumably added by the translator.]

Good advice to all writers.


The picture at the top of this post is Anton von Werner’s conception of how Horace may have looked. The date of its creation is unknown, but it was published no later than 1905.

“The Art of Poetry to the Pisos” was translated by Ben Johnson and published in 1640.

Both the picture and the essay translation are in the public domain because of their age.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Dr.Samuel Johnson

This week’s post turns from autobiography to biography. Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote poetry and prose and compiled a comprehensive dictionary single-handedly. His biography was written by a close friend, James Boswell, after Johnson’s death. The Life of Johnson contains numerous pithy quotes by Dr. Johnson. Here are three passages that show his opinions on keeping a journal, rambling narratives, and reading bad books.

   [Dr. Johnson] recommended me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved. He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance. I was uncommonly fortunate in having had a previous coincidence of opinion with him upon this subject, for I had kept such a journal for some time; and it was no small pleasure to me to have this to tell him, and to receive his approbation. He counselled me to keep it private, and said I might surely have a friend would burn it in case of my death. From this habit I have been enabled to give the world so many anecdotes, which would otherwise have been lost to posterity. I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. JOHNSON. ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’

* * *

     A learned gentleman who in the course of conversation wished to inform us of this simple fact, that the Counsel upon the circuit at Shrewsbury were much bitten by fleas, took, I suppose, seven or eight minutes in relating it circumstantially. He in a plentitude of phrase told us, that large bales of woollen cloth were lodged in the town hall; —that by reason of this, fleas nestled there in prodigious numbers; that the lodgings of the counsel were near to the town-hall; —and that those little animals moved from place to place with wonderful agility. Johnson sat in great impatience till the gentlemen had finished his tedious narrative, and then burst out (playfully, however), ‘It is a pity, Sir, that you have not seen a lion, for a flea has taken you such a time, that a lion must have served you a twelvemonth.’

* * *

     In the morning of Tuesday, June 15, while we sat at Dr. Adams’s, we talked of a printed letter from the Reverend Herbert Croft, to a young gentleman who had been his pupil, in which he advised him to read to the end of whatever books he should begin to read. JOHNSON. ‘This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?’

So keep a journal, quit rambling, and put down that awful book.


The picture at the top of this post is a 1772 painting by Joshua Reynolds. Both the picture and Boswell’s Life of Johnson are in the public domain because of their age.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Louisa May Alcott

Like Jack London, some of Louisa May Alcott’s (1832-1888) fiction was autobiographical, with Little Women being the most notable. Although most writers don’t sell their first novel, the rest of this experience from that book is familiar.

     Little notice was taken of her stories, but they found a market; and, encouraged by this fact, she resolved to make a bold stroke for fame and fortune. Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one-third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired.

* * *

     So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her firstborn on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing every one, she took every one’s advice; and, like the old man and his donkey in the fable, suited nobody.

     Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain, though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description; out, therefore, it nearly all came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy; so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the sprightly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complete the ruin, she cut it down one-third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world, to try its fate.

     Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it; likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected, that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment, from which it took some time to recover.

     * * *

     Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally; yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well, and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value, gave her the criticism which is an author’s best education; and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.

     “Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she said stoutly; “and I’ve got the joke on my side, after all; for the parts that were taken straight out of real life, are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head, are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true.’ So I’ll comfort myself with that; and, when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”

And so will we.


The quote is from “Literary Lessons” in Part II of Little Women.

Both the picture and Little Women are in the public domain because of their age.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Jack London

Jack London (1876-1916) received six hundred rejection slips before he sold his first story.*  In his semi-autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, he describes his feelings about the submission process.

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It traveled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed. There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines, wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.

     It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machine-likeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.

But London didn’t give up, and he eventually found the check-dispensing slot. So if you are discouraged by rejection slips, take heart from his experience.


* The source for this statistic is Jack Canfield in Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, pg. 153.


The quote is from Chapter 14 of Martin Eden.

Both the picture and Martin Eden are in the public domain because of their age.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Mark Twain

Have you been struggling with a memoir and finding that you can’t get it quite right? Mark Twain (1835-1910) tried to write his autobiography a number of times before he was finally satisfied enough to declare it finished.* Here is his explanation of why he was having so much trouble.

     Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

     With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections.

Eventually Twain decided to dictate his autobiography to a secretary. Even so, his early dictations (including this passage), still didn’t please him.

So if you are having trouble writing your memoirs or autobiography, you are not alone.


* Mark Twain left instructions not to publish his autobiography in its entirety until 100 years after his death, presumably because he was remarkably candid about people he disliked (as well as about those he liked).


The photograph was taken by A.F. Bradley around 1907, three years before Samuel Clemens’ death.

The quote is from page 224 of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and published by the University of California Press in 2010. He wrote this in Florence, Italy, on January 31, 1904.

Both the photograph and the quote are in the public domain because of their age.