Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Seeing, Hearing, and Reading": Maxwell Perkins on How to Write

Here’s some excellent writing advice via Maxwell Perkins, gleaned from Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, selected and edited by John Hall Wheelock:

The editor notes that this letter was written to a “writer of distinction” who had to stop working for a while and take a rest for health reasons.

March 11, 1941
Dear ---:
…And turning things over in your mind, and reflecting upon them and all, is something that a writer ought to have to do in quiet circumstances once in a while. That is one of the troubles with writers today, that they cannot get a chance, or cannot endure to do this. Galsworthy, who never over-rated himself as a writer, but was one of great note in fact, always said that the most fruitful thing for a writer to do was quiet brooding….
Being bitter about all the too-many accomplishments of your Facebook friends doesn’t count as brooding!

May 17, 1945

Dear Mr. Mulliken [a young man who was in the service at the time and wrote asking for career advice]:

…I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself….Long ago I went to visit Ernest Hemingway, after he had been a couple of years in Key West. We went fishing every day in those many-colored waters, and then also in the deep blue Gulf Stream. It was all completely new to me, and wonderfully interesting—there was so much to know that nobody would ever have suspected, about even fishing.  I said to Hemingway, “Why don’t you write about all this?” and he said, “I will in time, but I couldn’t do it yet,” and seeing I did not get his meaning, he pointed to a pelican that was clumsily flapping along, and said, “See that pelican? I don’t know yet what his part is in the scheme of things.”  He did know factually in his head, but he meant that it all had to become so deeply familiar that you knew it emotionally, as if by instinct, and that only came after a long time, and through long unconscious reflection….
(It would be interesting to see if there's a pelican in The Old Man and the Sea, just for kicks.)

June 22, 1945
Dear Jim [another young man in the service who wrote for career advice]:
…You see plenty, and you hear plenty, and that is much more important even than reading. You remember how when Swift was a young man he would go to the inns on the highways and sit in the bars and listen to the teamsters and coachmen talk. He never used the language that he heard—and I suppose he really listened just from interest anyhow—but the rhythm, the tempo of living speech is in the talk of the regular run of people. And so, though you can’t write as you wish now, you are probably going unconsciously through the best education you could have.  Seeing, hearing, and reading….
And, to quote the master:

January 4, 1946

Dear Jim [the same man as above]:

I delayed answering your letter because I wanted to quote from Scott Fitzgerald, and it took me a long time to find the paragraph:

“So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a métier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life.” …
Okay, seriously…no more Facebook today for any of us!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.