Advice from Edith Wharton

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another, equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it. 

In this respect, the novelist of the present day is in danger of being caught in a vicious circle, for the insatiable demand of quick production tends to keep him in a state of perpetual immaturity, and the ready acceptance of his wares encourages him to think that no time need be wasted in studying the past history of his art, or in speculating on its principles.

This conviction strengthens the belief that the so-called quality of “originality” may be impaired by too long brooding on one’s theme and too close a commerce with the past; but the whole history of that past – in every domain of art – disproves this by what survives, and shows that every subject, to yield and to retain its full flavour, should be long carried in the mind, brooded upon, and fed with all the impressions and emotions which nourish its creator.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.

That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

To know any one thing one must not only know something of a great many others, but also, as Matthew Arnold long since pointed out, a great deal more of one’s immediate subject than any partial presentation of it visibly includes; and Mr. Kipling’s “What should they know of England who only England know?” might be taken as the symbolic watchword of the creative artist.

One is sometimes tempted to think that the generation which has invented the “fiction course” is getting the fiction it deserves. 

At any rate it is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms.

But though the trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there, it is far from being the sole cause of the present quest for short-cuts in art.

There are writers indifferent to popular success, and even contemptuous of it, who sincerely believe that this line marks the path of the true vocation.

Many people assume that the artist receives, at the outset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as “Inspiration,” and has only to let that sovereign impulse carry him where it will.

Inspiration does indeed come at the outset to every creator, but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided; and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.

There is no doubt that in this day of general “speeding up,” the “inspirational” theory is seductive even to those who care nothing for easy triumphs.

No writer – especially at the beginning of his career – can help being influenced by the quality of the audience that awaits him; and the young novelist may ask of what use are experience and meditation, when his readers are so incapable of giving him either.

The answer is that he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (and his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondence, and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will some day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it.

As to experience, intellectual and moral, the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains sufficiently long in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. 

One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels.

But they must have hearts that can break.

Even to the writer least concerned with popularity it is difficult, at first, to defend his personality.

Study and meditation contain their own perils. 

Counsellors intervene with contradictory advice and instances.

In such cases these counsellors are most often other people’s novels: the great novels of the past, which haunt the beginner like a passion, and the works of his contemporaries, which pull him this way and that with too-persuasive hands.

His impulse, at first, will be either to shun them, to his own impoverishment, or to let his dawning individuality be lost in theirs; but gradually he will come to see that he must learn to listen to them, take all they can give, absorb it into himself, and then turn to his own task with the fixed resolve to see life only through his own eyes.

Even then another difficulty remains; the mysterious discrepancy which sometimes exists between a novelist’s vision of life and his particular kind of talent.

Not infrequently an innate tendency to see things in large masses is combined with the technical inability to render them otherwise than separately, meticulously, on a small scale.

Perhaps more failures than one is aware of are due to this particular lack of proportion between the powers of vision and expression.

At any rate, it is the cause of some painful struggles and arid dissatisfactions; and the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.

Of twenty subjects that tempt the imagination (subjects one sees one’s self doing, oh so wonderfully, if only one were Merimee or Maupassant, or Conrad or Mr. Kipling!) probably but one is “fit for the hand” of the limited person one happens to be; and to learn to renounce the others is a first step toward doing that particular one well.

-Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

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