Links to books in print:
Contemporary writers and their work
[Originally published in The Editor; the journal of information for literary workers, v. 52, Jan.-June 1920]
To recall the conception of the idea of "The Inner Hero" (Romance for November) is difficult. It is one of a series of sailor and fireman stories conceived some years ago, and with the exception of two others abandoned. I think that I may express myself better if I speak generally rather than particularly, for as I have said, I can scarcely recall the genesis and parturition of this story, although it was born actually in New York. Usually I decide upon what class of mankind and in what environment I am going to ponder in search of an idea—too often, I regret to say, influenced by what I imagine will stand a sporting chance of selling: sometimes they sell, sometimes they don't; there are other gorgeous moments when intoxicated by a check—and rarer ones when I don't give a damn whether the Heavens fall or the price of coal goes up—that I defy the gods by writing what I damn well please; they do not sell . . . except, in justice I must admit, with a few exceptions. Well, to continue; having decided upon a character or characters, usually based upon some person I have bumped against—maybe for merely ten minutes—1 seek a natural environment and his probable circumstances, male and female, I set them, as it were upon a stage in my mind. Then when they have become "real" I obtain an illusion that they are and merely sit down and record what they "insist" upon doing. I say "insist" because frequently when I, playing god, choose a nice comfortable and orthodox end for them they refuse to obey me, and as I have sunk into merely the position of re-porter, the result is usually lamentable as far as editors and my bank account is concerned.
This account of writing "The Inner Hero" may not be accounted of much use to would-be writers (there is no inference in the phrase for I am merely a would-be writer; I merely mention the fact because association brings to my mind cheap sneers which have been perpetrated), but if you will permit me to say, said account may teach more than a dozen "How to write short stories" instructions. That is to say that one can write or one cannot and no amount of instructions will teach a man or woman. Again, that is to say that I do not mean anything about divine afflatus. To me as I see it—if you will again permit me to lapse into the "ideal world"— there is a metier for everyone. One man can make chairs perfectly or nearly so; another design bridges and engines; another make money—the least of all! The trouble is that there are so many chairmakers trying to write short stories and many story writers trying to make chairs. Am I a chairmaker or a story writer? Damned if I know! I'm trying to find out. Personally, as I am vain, I think that I could make chairs; but I don't think that the third chair would interest me much.
Well, experiences as a writer: I began when I was 28 or 29. I was stuck in the centre of Morocco, isolated, and finding a library abandoned by—well, no names, no pack drill! —I read to pass the time, novels, and became so bored with them that I swore that if I could not write a better yarn than those in particular I would eat my hat and other clothes! Since then I have been trying to avoid eating my hat, etc. Personally, I don't think that I am called upon to do so. I began a novel there and finished it in London when I returned—broke; and being broke took it into my head that I would be a writer or bust! Every publisher in London turned it down; Public won't stand for it, etc. A friendly critic said to me, "Stick your tongue in your cheek, old man, and write something to please ‘em !“ ¡ did. First publisher to whom it was offered gave special terms. My hoary aunt, I actually made money! Not much, but real money. That book is selling in cheap edition. I sat down again to’ write “something that would please ‘em !“ Then occurred the process to which I have already referred. My “creations” would not obey their god (how very human). They would insist upon making a tragedy of it. After the fourteenth publisher I took to sending it round in couples. Two publishers, young, made an offer simultaneously. I accepted the better offer. My publisher on the day of publication eloped to Morocco with his typist and incidentally the firm’s funds—and a few months afterwards the other fellow was in gaol for embezzlement. Fate “got me going and coming,” as they say!
On further reflection, recalling the process of story making seems more difficult than ever. What I have already said is fundamentally true. I may add that the character, the atmosphere or the “meaning” of the story attracts me. The great thing that I am in capable of understanding is “plot.” Personally, plot does not interest me in the least. it is merely the hobby horse on which to hang the clothes, but I do not feel that I need a hobby horse.
That’s all there is to it. A cinema has need of a plot. Writing has not (I didn’t say literature; I don’t like the word and I am not a literateur. I am a writer. What’s the matter with the word anyway?). The cinema—as it is now—cannot utilize the cadence of words, the nuances, the motivating psychology—except in very primitive form. (Uproar! Good!)
As one editor was kind enough to say to me: We don’t care a damn about atmosphere writing, psychology; we want a plot!
A publisher who played the young girl with the petals, He loves me! He loves me not! business remarked upon the “faulty construction” of a manuscript. “What,” said I. “do you mean by construction ?“ After vague explanations I saw a great light. “A-ah!” I cried, “plot you mean !“ “Oh, well,” said he, “that’s what the lowbrows call it !“
Well, the snow is here and no coal is nigh, but life’s rather ridiculous, isn’t it?