Arthur Clutton-Brock by Sir William Rothenstein

Arthur Clutton-Brock by Sir William Rothenstein

I just came across this wonderful essay on writing (although the world “writing” could easily be substituted by a number of other things, I’m sure).  In fact, it’s SO good, I’m posting it here in its entirety. It was written in 1921 by Arthur Clutton-Brock, the British essayist and critic best known for his studies of painter William Morris and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  The essay was published in a book called “Essays on Vocation: Second Series,” edited by Basil Mathews (Oxford University Press).  According to About.com, in the introduction Mathews said that an individual’s vocation “is to carry his life through under the rule of the call to service.”

I offer this to the emerging writers I have the pleasure to know and ask them to take note of what Clutton-Brock calls “certain signs of vocation.”  He indicates they may help in deciding whether one has what it takes to pursue writing as a profession.

Such wonderful turns of phrase, as well — Such as, “There are many other tasks worth doing by which you are likely to get more pudding or praise.”  More pudding.  Indeed.

Enjoy!

Writing as Vocation

by Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868-1924)

Great writers in the past, Shakespeare among them, have earned their living by literature, and some good writers do so to-day. Indeed a good writer can, I think, make sure of earning a living by hard work; but whether he is rich or poor depends upon qualities which he may lack. Shakespeare could have been a popular journalist or novelist if he had lived to-day, he could have earned enough by brilliant but easily done work to give him time for his masterpieces; Wordsworth could not.

So, even if you are a great writer, you must take the chance of poverty or wealth; and, if you are a good writer, you will take it. But how are you to know in youth whether you are a good writer? The mere desire to write is not proof of a vocation; many youths wish to be writers because a few writers are famous, because they admire the works of writers, good or bad, or because it seems an easy, pleasant way of earning a living. Such a vague desire may be misleading; in fact you can discover whether you have a vocation for literature only by writing, and by continuing to write, no matter how much you are discouraged.

In some great writers the impulse precedes the power; they learn how to write well by writing ill, they learn even what they have to say by saying something else. The strength of their impulse is tested by experience and there is no other way of testing it. Or you may have a natural, precocious gift, and a natural desire to exercise it, but no real or lasting vocation; you may start with success and write yourself out before you are thirty. Worst of all, you may have a lasting, almost insane, impulse without talent. There are such people, but advice is wasted on them.

This is bewildering and discouraging; but there are, I believe, certain signs of vocation in literature which I will mention.

The first, not decisive by itself, is a liking for good books, not necessarily for all good books, but at least for some. If you are to be a writer, not a hack, you must, I think, prefer the good books of the past to the bad ones of the present, and you must have the power of knowing good from bad among the writers of to-day. If you find that you always by preference read newspapers and magazines, you may be a good citizen, but you are not likely to become a good writer. But on this point I must try to be honest. Many good or even great writers read little literature in middle age; but in their youth they have read much. One of the signs of vocation is an inordinate passion for literature in youth, a delight in the excellence of great writers, and a hatred of the nonsense of bad ones.

But by itself this is not enough; the other sign of vocation is the sparing of no pains in the practice of writing. When [Thomas]Carlyle said that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains, he may have been wiser than he seems. The great difficulty in any art is, not to take time, but to take real pains over it. The bad artist can never take pains over what he is doing at the moment. The bad writer is always going to say what he has to say in the next sentence; he cannot say it in the sentence he is writing. That, he thinks, will do as it stands; when he has finished it he will get to business. But the good writer is determined to say what he has to say in the sentence he is writing, and he will not let it pass until he has done so. That is what I mean by taking pains; and technique is the power of taking pains, of throwing all your energy into what you are doing at the moment. So, if you have a vocation for writing, not only will you be in love with excellence in other writers, but you will also know that you can yourself achieve it only by throwing all your energy into what you write, as you write it. You will never deceive yourself with easy imitations of style; you will know that your problem is to say what you have to say and you will not rest content until you have said it.

You may know whether you are a writer by vocation if you ask yourself this question and give an honest answer to it. When you write, is your chief desire to say exactly what you have to say; and does that seem to you a task for a lifetime? There are many other tasks worth doing by which you are likely to get more pudding or praise; but the born writer is a peculiar person whose chief desire in life is to say exactly what he has to say, even though he does not yet know what it may be. He is sure not to know that at first; for you learn what you have to say only by the incessant, intense, effort to say it. You are not born with a ready-made message which you can lay like an egg, and then cackle over it amid the applause of the world. The impulse to write is, first of all, the desire for exact expression; that is why born writers delight so much in the fine expression of others. When they read words like

The bright day is done
And we are for the dark.

they cry to themselves “It is said,” and such saying seems to them glory enough, and task enough, for any mortal, or immortal man.

So there is a distinction in kind between the born writer and the man who is born to do something else. The born writer does not ask himself whether his message will do good to mankind; his faith in expression is too deep for such a question. He believes, it may be unconsciously, that whatever is truly said in answer to an impulse, is worth saying. That is his religion, and, as a consequence of it, he will neither rest content with a thing half said, nor will he say what he does not mean. If it does not seem to you important to say as well as you can whatever you have the impulse to say, then choose some other trade; literature is not your vocation. Among born writers some are greater and some less; some are tragic poets, some journalists; but they all differ in kind from those to whom the saying of things is not a task for a lifetime.

But it must be plain to any one who reads newspapers, magazines, plays, or novels of to-day, that most of them are not written by men or women who have this passion for saying what they have to say as well as possible. Rather they are commercial articles supplied in answer to a supposed demand. There are many writers who attain to some skill in saying what they think their readers wish to hear and who make a comfortable living by doing so. But I would warn my readers against this way of earning a living, as being precarious, mischievous, and unhappy.

If you wish for a life of commerce–and I say nothing against such a life–let it be frankly commercial. Sell stocks and shares, or boots and shoes. You can be honest, in the sale of such things, both with yourself and with your public. But if you are a commercial writer, you can be honest with neither; for your very aim is to persuade yourself and your public that you feel what you do not feel, and think what you do not think. Do not suppose that the bad, popular, passionate novelist writes with his tongue in his cheek; if he did, it might be an amusing trade, however disreputable. But, it is not possible, I believe, for any man to convince the public of his good faith unless he has first convinced himself. The bad, popular writer must pretend to be an artist; and an artist, by definition, expresses his own thoughts and feelings. So, if a commercial writer does not write with an air of conviction, if he makes it clear in his manner of writing that he is trying to give the public what it likes so as to earn a living, he never will earn one. But the air of conviction will not convince others unless it has already convinced the writer himself. That is the secret of vulgar popularity; it is enjoyed by those writers who have the power of persuading themselves, as well as the public, that they think what they do not think, and feel what they do not feel; and they remain bad writers because good writing can be achieved only by the effort to say what you really do think and feel. The reality of the thought or feeling is what makes you exacting, you must find the words for that and nothing else; but, if you are possessed by the desire to say what will please others, and can persuade yourself that it is what you have to say, then the clap-trap in your mind will be clap-trap in language. You will write like a demagogue who rants to win cheers from a crowd and who, in the process, persuades himself that he is a great orator. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but only of the scoundrel who has first convinced himself that he is a patriot.

You may earn a living by this process; you may even keep a car and wear a fur coat; but I warn you against it, for it is as easily begun and as difficult to cure as drug-taking. Few young writers start with the intention of winning popularity by self-deception; but there are incessant temptations to it. If you have a turn for it, you will be flattered from the first by editors and the public; you will also be paid. It is so easy to say, for this once, a little more or less than you mean, especially if you are writing in a hurry; and, very likely, you will find, to your surprise, that what you have said pleases more than what you say painfully, exactly, and slowly. Then you may flinch from the true explanation that you are beginning to produce a commercial article and may tell yourself that writing thus quickly and recklessly you were inspired. That is why you gave so much pleasure–from the heart it came; to the heart it went. So the process of self-deception begins; but, before you start on it, read some of the finished products, a bad popular novel, or some of those articles which abound in the newspapers, falsely indignant, falsely sympathetic, or impudently familiar; and ask yourself whether you wish, not only to write them, but to think them good. Of course you do not; but writers who started with talents equal to yours have written them and have thought them good. To think them good is the dreadful penalty of being false to their vocation, if ever they had one.

So, before you become a writer, make sure that you have the true writer’s passion, that your main desire in life is to say exactly what you have to say as well as you can say it. For if not, you must either sink to the writing of such things and to thinking them good, or you must seek some other employment. Remember, too, that, among commercial writers, very few win a vulgar success; most have to be content with a vulgar failure and are at the mercy of editors who underpay and overwork them.

If you have the writer’s passion, do not dream of great successes; for such dreams may put you out of conceit with the real rewards of the writer. Some great writers like [Charles] Dickens do win instant and enormous popularity and remain artists in spite of it. Dickens has kept his popularity and his fame because he took more and more pains the longer he wrote. If ever he wrote badly, it was not for lack of pains; and his last books are his best. But many of the greatest writers win fame without popularity. Mr. [Thomas] Hardy, the greatest living novelist in the world, has never been popular; he is content to live by his art and thankful, no doubt, that he can live by that which he was born to do.

Journalism is now the chief way into literature for those who have to earn their living at once, and not a bad way for those who can write and resist temptation. But the temptations are many. It is a common defect of editors not to desire excellence. Excellent writing always says something, and where something is said some readers will disagree. There are editors who demand writing with which no reader can disagree, writing that says nothing crisply and with a false air of conviction, or else of underbred ease; they wish everything in their paper that is not news to have the same character or lack of it; they are as timid as censors in the war; indeed the war and its censorship have given them the habit of timidity so that they still ask of every plain statement whether it will help the enemy, whoever he may be. To write for such employers is no vocation and leads nowhere. If you aim at pleasing them, you will soon be a hack without reputation or resources and so at their mercy. It is wiser, even in the way of worldly wisdom, to make a reputation by good writing though you may be less well paid for it; and then, if your reputation is high enough, even these editors will put up with your plain-speaking sometimes. The good article tells slowly, and by always producing it you will train yourself for harder tasks, for writing books, and so for saying what you have to say at length and at your ease. But hack journalism trains you for nothing, gives you only a facility that thousands share and no one values.

I have spoken of literature only in general terms. I include in it all kinds of writing which have something to say and say it as well as may be. In all the arts there is one condition of excellence and happiness, namely to do your best always and even in fun. If you find you are writing what does not seem worth writing, then cease to write it. Nothing produces bad habits of style and thought so surely as the doing of what does not seem worth doing. Good trifles are produced by those who can put all their powers into them; good pot-boilers are not written merely to boil the pot. But vocation will tell you all this, if you have it; it will carry you through many temptations and it will be its own reward, even if you get no other.

3 Comments

  1. donna delaney on March 27, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Lauren, thanks for sharing this insightful essay. Arthur Clutton-Brock wrote this decades ago, but the way he addresses “how are you to know in youth whether you are a good writer? ” still resonates very powefully for me.

    • Lauren B. Davis on March 27, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Hi Donna — yes! One of the things that fascinated me about the essay was how relevant it still is. Glad you found it useful.

  2. lucky8 on March 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    As with other careers in the arts, this essay just reminds us how much hardship most writers have to content with. So as you’ve mentioned in other blog postings, it’s not for those who are faint of heart. The required dedication and persistence seems so extreme, I can understand why you sometimes question your chosen path — but the universe seems to sending signals to you to keep going!

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