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TALKS ON WRITING ENGLISH

I

THE ART OF WRITING

INTO all productive art enter two sorts of power, that which is communicable and that which is incommunicable, — in other words, that which may be taught and that which is inborn. Upon this fact is based the distinction between the mechani. cal and the fine arts, although since both kinds of power have a share in all production nobody has ever been able to draw a sharp and definite line at which the mechanical arts end and the fine arts begin. The power which is incommunicable is that of imagination, that indefinable grace and skill, that enchantment of creative ability which is born with rare individuals, and for which he who is not dowered with it by nature struggles in vain. It is this which has given rise to that saying as profound as it is terribly hackneyed which declares that a poet is born and not made. It is this which distinguishes genius from talent; and it is this which has so dazzled the eyes of the world as to produce the mistaken notion that since imagination is not to be learned nothing is to be learned in the realm of art.

This incommunicable power is the soul of fine

power which

art; yet into fine art no less than into the mechanical arts comes also that

may

be learned. This communicable power is commonly spoken of as the technical, or as technique. This any person of intelligence and perseverance can and may master if he choose, every man according to his ability; and this every artist must acquire, no matter how richly he may have been gifted by nature with the magic power which transcends and dominates it. It is this that musicians, painters, sculptors, architects, dancers, and writers are set to learn when they are said to study art. The world has long recognized that in painting, music, sculpture, and architecture it is indispensable that technique shall be acquired; but — absurd as it may seem — it is only recently, comparatively speaking, that it has been practically recognized that this is as true of poetry as of painting, as true of literature as of any other art. It is in truth only in our own day that there has been anything like a general acceptance of the fact that in literature as in the other arts technical skill must be laboriously acquired before any successful and permanent work can be produced. The masters have of course known this; but the idea that to be an author nothing is needed but pen, ink, and paper used to hold undisputed sway over the popular mind, and is by no means extinct yet. Not long ago I heard a learned professor in one of the leading American colleges declare that he could not see what there is to learn in composition. Last summer a gentleman of really wide reading, but who

was brought up under the old system, said to me: “By teaching composition, I suppose you mean chiefly correcting the grammar and punctuation.” He was somewhat surprised when I explained that students were supposed to have mastered both grammar and punctuation before the teaching of composition as such could begin.

The truth is that there has never been anything like a popular understanding of the difference between spoken and written speech. Anybody is supposed to be able to talk, and to learn to do so unconsciously, - a doctrine to which I do not wish to be understood as giving assent ! -- and it has been held to follow that anybody could write. To write was merely to talk with the pen, and that has commonly been held to be all there is to the matter save for the fact that some persons were born to write and some were not.

A personal experience of my own illustrates this, if its introduction may be pardoned. I have never forgotten the general bewilderment with which my friends met my announcement when I left college that I meant to study literature. That one should follow literature as a profession was not entirely unintelligible, if it did suggest a dire mental weakness on the part of the young man who was rash enough to take such a resolution; but how one studied literature as a profession was beyond ordinary understanding. “You mean that you are going to write books,” some said tentatively. My reply that such a possibility was presupposed in the study of literature just as the pleading of cases

might be presupposed in the study of law only increased the difficulty of the confusing puzzle. It was of course understood that there was in the law something to study; but what, in the name of common sense, was there to study in literature ? Books one sat down and wrote, and that was the whole of it; and I soon found the idea gaining ground that I only put the matter in this way for the sake of producing an impression, or perhaps of covering a fixed and reprehensible intention of doing nothing.

I thought then that I had some idea of what the study of literature really meant, and I gave such explanations as I could; but, alas, the incessant work of years has chiefly served to show me how inadequate my idea was, and how much more there is to be learned than I then had any notion of ! Some of the things which experience has taught me I think may be of value to you ; and in these lectures I shall try to state them, although I realize but too well how far I am from being able to cover or exhaust the subject. I shall, of course, say some things which all of you know already, and many things which some of you know. I hope, however, to say also some things which you have not thought of, and by arrangement and system to give fresh value and force to old ideas. It is not impossible that experience has shown me things which will be practically helpful to others. Any man who has wrought long at a craft is likely to be able to give suggestions valuable to those who have not. The sluggard is by the Scriptures referred to the

ant not on account of her intellectual superiority, but solely because of her great practical training.

All discussion must begin with definition, either expressed or understood.

There is of course no doubt that each of us has an idea what composition is, yet to be sure that we are agreed, it is necessary to state the meaning in which we use the term. Let us say, then:

Composition is the art by which ideas and mental impressions are conveyed in written language.

Nothing could sound more simple ; few things are more difficult of achievement. It is not hard to convey ideas, but it is by no means easy to be sure that they will arrive at their destination in good order. Impressions and ideas are delicate things, and are most liable to be injured in the passage. There are writers whose methods suggest an attempt to get eggs to market by shooting them from a cannon, the eggs may arrive, it is true, but in what condition? The means must be adapted to that with which one is dealing. It is folly to attempt to carry soap-bubbles in a mealsack or leaden bullets in a lace handkerchief.

The student of the art of writing has to learn to suit his means to the end sought. He must train himself to judge what manner of expression, of style, or treatment, will best serve to transfer ideas from his own mind to that of the reader. He must study the effect of words and of combinations of words; the value of suggestion, and of all the emotional effects possible in written words. He must

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