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An essay by Arthur C. Benson

Authorship (from Thread of Gold)

Title:     Authorship (from Thread of Gold)
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

I found myself at dinner the other day next to an old friend, whom I see but seldom; a quiet, laborious, able man, with the charm of perfect modesty and candour, who, moreover, writes a very beautiful and lucid style. I said to him that I conceived it to be my mission, whenever I met him, to enquire what he was writing, and to beg him to write more. He said smilingly that he was very much occupied in his work, which is teaching, and found little time to write; "besides," he said, "I think that one writes too much." He went on to say that though he loved writing well enough when he was in the mood for it, yet that the labour of shaping sentences, and lifting them to their places, was very severe.

I felt myself a little rebuked by this, for I will here confess that writing is the one pleasure and preoccupation of my own life, though I do not publish a half of what I write. It set me wondering whether I did indeed write too much; and so I said to him: "You mean, I suppose, that one gets into the habit of serving up the same ideas over and over again, with a different sauce, perhaps; but still the same ideas?" "Yes," he said, "that is what I mean. When I have written anything that I care about, I feel that I must wait a long time before the cistern fills again."

We went on to talk of other things; but I have since been reflecting whether there is truth in what my friend said. If his view is true of writing, then it is surely the only art that is so hampered. We should never think that an artist worked too much; we might feel that he did not perhaps finish his big pictures sufficiently; but if he did not spare labour in finishing his pictures, we should never find fault with him for doing, say, as Turner did, and making endless studies and sketches, day after day, of all that struck him as being beautiful. We should feel indeed that some of these unconsidered and rapid sketches had a charm and a grace that the more elaborate pictures might miss; and in any case we should feel that the more that he worked, the firmer and easier would become his sweep of hand, the more deft his power of indicating a large effect by an economy of resource. The musician, too: no one would think of finding fault with him for working every day at his art; and it is the same with all craftsmen; the more they worked, the surer would their touch be.

Now I am inclined to believe that what makes writing good is not so much the pains taken with a particular piece of work, the retouching, the corrections, the dear delays. Still more fruitful than this labour is the labour spent on work that is never used, that never sees the light. Writing is to me the simplest and best pleasure in the world; the mere shaping of an idea in words is the occupation of all others I most love; indeed, to speak frankly, I plan and arrange all my days that I may secure a space for writing, not from a sense of duty, but merely from a sense of delight. The whole world teems with subjects and thoughts, sights of beauty and images of joy and sorrow, that I desire to put into words; and to forbid myself to write would be to exercise the strongest self-denial of which I am capable. Of course I do not mean that I can always please myself. I have piles of manuscripts laid aside which fail either in conception or expression, or in both. But there are a dozen books I would like to write if I had the time.

To be honest, I do not believe in fretting too much over a piece of writing. Writing, laboriously constructed, painfully ornamented, is often, I think, both laborious and painful to read; there is a sense of strain about it. It is like those uneasy figures that one sees in the carved gargoyles of old churches, crushed and writhing for ever under a sense of weight painfully sustained, or holding a gaping mouth open, for the water-pipe to discharge its contents therethrough. However ingenious these carvings are, they always give a sense of tension and oppression to the mind; and it is the same with laboured writers; my theory of writing rather is that the conception should be as clear as possible, and then that the words should flow like a transparent stream, following as simply as possible the shape and outline of the thought within, like a waterbreak over a boulder in a stream's bed. This, I think, is best attained by infinite practice. If a piece of work seems to be heavy and muddy, let it be thrown aside ungrudgingly; but the attempt, even though it be a failure, makes the next attempt easier.

I do not think that one can write for very long at a time to much purpose; I take the two or three hours when the mind is clearest and freshest, and write as rapidly as I can; this secures, it seems to me, a clearness and a unity which cannot be attained by fretful labour, by poking and pinching at one's work. One avoids by rapidity and ardour the dangerous defect of repetition; a big task must be divided into small sharp episodes to be thus swiftly treated. The thought of such a writer as Flaubert lying on his couch or pacing his room, the racked and tortured medium of his art, spending hours in selecting the one perfect word for his purpose, is a noble and inspiring picture; but such a process does not, I fear, always end in producing the effect at which it aims; it improves the texture at a minute point; it sacrifices width and freedom.

Together with clearness of conception and resource of vocabulary must come a certain eagerness of mood. When all three qualities are present, the result is good work, however rapidly it may be produced. If one of the three is lacking, the work sticks, hangs, and grates; and thus what I feel that the word-artist ought to do is to aim at working on these lines, but to be very strict and severe about the ultimate selection of his work. If, for instance, in a big task, a section has been dully and impotently written, let him put the manuscript aside, and think no more of it for a while; let him not spend labour in attempting to mend bad work; then, on some later occasion, let him again get his conception clear, and write the whole section again; if he loves writing for itself he will not care how often this process is repeated.

I am speaking here very frankly; and I will own that for myself, when the day has rolled past and when the sacred hour comes, I sit down to write with an appetite, a keen rapture, such as a hungry man may feel when he sits down to a savoury meal. There is a real physical emotion that accompanies the process; and it is a deep and lively distress that I feel when I am living under conditions that do not allow me to exercise my craft, at being compelled to waste the appropriate hours in other occupations.

It may be fairly urged that with this intense impulse to write, I ought to have contrived to make myself into a better writer; and it might be thought that there is something either grotesque or pathetic in so much emotional enjoyment issuing in so slender a performance. But the essence of the happiness is that the joy resides in the doing of the work and not in the giving it to the world; and though I do not pretend not to be fully alive to the delight of having my work praised and appreciated, that is altogether a secondary pleasure which in no way competes with the luxury of expression.

I am not ungrateful for this delight; it may, I know, be withdrawn from me; but meanwhile the world seems to be full to the brim of expressive and significant things. There is a beautiful old story of a saint who saw in a vision a shining figure approaching him, holding in his hand a dark and cloudy globe. He held it out, and the saint looking attentively upon it, saw that it appeared to represent the earth in miniature; there were the continents and seas, with clouds sweeping over them; and, for all that it was so minute, he could see cities and plains, and little figures moving to and fro. The angel laid his finger on a part of the globe, and detached from it a small cluster of islands, drawing them out of the sea; and the saint saw that they were peopled by a folk, whom he knew, in some way that he could not wholly understand, to be dreary and uncomforted. He heard a voice saying, "_He taketh up the isles as a very small thing_"; and it darted into his mind that his work lay with the people of those sad islands; that he was to go thither, and speak to them a message of hope.

It is a beautiful story; and it has always seemed to me that the work of the artist is like that. He is to detach from the great peopled globe what little portion seems to appeal to him most; and he must then say what he can to encourage and sustain men, whatever thoughts of joy and hope come most home to him in his long and eager pilgrimage.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Authorship (from Thread of Gold)