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An essay by A. A. Milne

The Ideal Author

Title:     The Ideal Author
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

Samuel Butler made a habit (and urged it upon every young writer) of carrying a notebook about with him. The most profitable ideas, he felt, do not come from much seeking, but rise unbidden in the mind, and if they are not put down at once on paper, they may be lost for ever. But with a notebook in the pocket you are safe; no thought is too fleeting to escape you. Thus, if an inspiration for a five-thousand word story comes suddenly to you during the dessert, you murmur an apology to your neighbour, whip out your pocket-book, and jot down a few rough notes. "Hero choked peach- stone eve marriage Lady Honoria. Pchtree planted by jltd frst love. Ironyofthings. Tragic." Next morning you extract your notebook from its white waistcoat, and prepare to develop your theme (if legible) a little more fully. Possibly it does not seem so brilliant in the cold light of morning as it did after that fourth glass of Bollinger. If this be so, you can then make another note--say, for a short article on "Disillusionment." One way or another a notebook and a pencil will keep you well supplied with material.

If I do not follow Butler's advice myself, it is not because I get no brilliant inspirations away from my inkpot, nor because, having had the inspirations, I am capable of retaining them until I get back to my inkpot again, but simply because I should never have the notebook and the pencil in the right pockets. But though I do not imitate him, I can admire his wisdom, even while making fun of it. Yet I am sure it was unwise of him to take the public into his confidence. The public prefers to think that an author does not require these earthly aids to composition. It will never quite reconcile itself to the fact that an author is following a profession-- a profession by means of which he pays the rent and settles the weekly bills. No doubt the public wants its favourite writers to go on living, but not in the sordid way that its barrister and banker friends live. It would prefer to feel that manna dropped on them from Heaven, and that the ravens erected them a residence; but, having regretfully to reject this theory, it likes to keep up the pretence that the thousand pounds that an author received for his last story came as something of a surprise to him--being, in fact, really more of a coincidence than a reward.

The truth is that a layman will never take an author quite seriously. He regards authorship, not as a profession, but as something between au inspiration and a hobby. In as far as it is an inspiration, it is a gift from Heaven, and ought, therefore, to be shared with the rest of the world; in as far as it is a hobby, it is something which should be done not too expertly, but in a casual, amateur, haphazard fashion. For this reason a layman will never hesitate to ask of an author a free contribution for some local publication, on such slender grounds as that he and the author were educated at the same school or had both met Robinson. But the same man would be horrified at the idea of asking a Harley Street surgeon (perhaps even more closely connected with him) to remove his adenoids for nothing. To ask for this (he would feel) would be almost as bad as to ask a gift of ten guineas (or whatever the fee is), whereas to ask a writer for an article is like asking a friend to decant your port for you--a delicate compliment to his particular talent. But in truth the matter is otherwise; and it is the author who has the better right to resent such a request. For the supply of available adenoids is limited, and if the surgeon hesitates to occupy himself in removing one pair for nothing, it does not follow that in the time thus saved he can be certain of getting employment upon a ten-guinea pair. But when a Harley Street author has written an article, there are a dozen papers which will give him his own price for it, and if he sends it to his importunate schoolfellow for nothing, he is literally giving up, not only ten or twenty or a hundred guineas, but a publicity for his work which he may prize even more highly. Moreover, he has lost what can never be replaced-- an idea; whereas the surgeon would have lost nothing.

Since, then, the author is not to be regarded as a professional, he must by no means adopt the professional notebook. He is to write by inspiration; which comes as regularly to him (it is to be presumed) as indigestion to a lesser-favoured mortal. He must know things by intuition; not by experience or as the result of reading. This, at least, is what one gathers from hearing some people talk about our novelists. The hero of Smith's new book goes to the Royal College of Science, and the public says scornfully: "Of course, he WOULD. Because Smith went to the Royal College himself, all his heroes have to go there. This isn't art, this is photography." In his next novel Smith sends his hero to Cambridge, and the public says indignantly, "What the deuce does SMITH know about Cambridge? Trying to pretend he is a 'Varsity man, when everybody knows that he went to the Royal College of Science! I suppose he's been mugging it up in a book." Perhaps Brown's young couple honeymoons in Switzerland. "So did Brown," sneer his acquaintances. Or they go to Central Africa. "How ridiculous," say his friends this time. "Why, he actually writes as though he'd been there! I suppose he's just spent a week-end with Sir Harry Johnston." Meredith has been blamed lately for being so secretive about his personal affairs, but he knew what he was doing. Happy is the writer who has no personal affairs; at any rate, he will avoid this sort of criticism.

Indeed, Isaiah was the ideal author. He intruded no private affairs upon the public. He took no money for his prophecies, and yet managed to live on it. He responded readily, I imagine, to any request for "something prophetic, you know," from acquaintances or even strangers. Above all, he kept to one style, and did not worry the public, when once it had got used to him, by tentative gropings after a new method. And Isaiah, we may be sure, did NOT carry a notebook.

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A. A. Milne's essay: Ideal Author