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.

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