On Writing (and Washing Machines, and The Year 1962)

So I have a bunch of these on my bookshelf:

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World Book Encyclopedia, 1962.

You might notice the W volume is missing. That’s because after we’d decorated the Christmas tree but before the new washing machine was delivered, I pulled it off the shelf to see what it had to say about writing. Here’s what I found:

Because writing seems so easy, everyone thinks he can do it. Anyone who can speak is apt to assume that he can also write, regardless of whether he is equipped with literary skills. In no other area does the professional worker face such widespread competition from amateurs and semi-professionals.

Goodness! That reads a bit snooty, doesn’t it? But these encyclopedias were published in 1962, and if you think the “he” is sexist, you should see what they have to say about washing machines and how much easier they made a woman’s work.

1962 doesn’t seem all that long ago to me, but the math says otherwise. The math says that’s over 50 years, which is kind of a pretty long time ago. There was no blogging back then. No Tumblr, no Twitter, no Facebook. Just typewriters. And sexist language about writing and clothes washing. And you may have noticed a slight difference in the way people thought about writing, in the above. Take this for example, in the below:

The requisites for success in writing are an above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience, a talent for using words in meaningful ways, and an irresistible urge to put those words on paper.

I can’t see the folks at Blogging 101 starting off the semester on a note like that, asking everyone to bring their above average mental capacity for observing and comprehending. At least not seriously.

I’m not sure why I pulled the W volume off the shelf to read about writing, but I was intrigued. It reminded me of another book I recently read and wrote about called Writing Fiction, which coincidentally, was also published in 1962. That book had this to say:

It may be that in spite of interest and industry you are not cut out to be a writer who earns a name and a wage by writing fiction. It would be folly to go on year after year sacrificing to a talent too small to pay back the investment…”

Mercy! However, a moment later, we’re offered a caveat. The author takes writing seriously, and thinks it’s a worthwhile pursuit, both noble and difficult, even for those who aren’t getting paid. He says that if after struggling to master your craft, to write things people will pay to read, you fail, then you have this to console you:

…But if common sense tells you this is the case, you need not believe for one minute that all the effort and the hope you have thus far poured into the task of writing have been wasted. Whatever you have gained of insight into life and the creative process will be a permanent possession. And nothing obliges you to stop writing just because you decided not to make a career of it. You have a craft that is far more than a hobby. You have a means of self-education that is far more than a do-it-yourself program for self-improvement. To the extent that you have learned to control the art of fiction you have earned the right to consider yourself a professional. You have within your power the means to enrich and humanize all the vicissitudes that life can bring you. Cherish it, and extend it.”

That should make us all feel a bit better, shouldn’t it?

Am I serious?

I think so.

What’s interesting to me about these quotes is how the art, or craft, or act of writing, however we term it, was made out to be a much bigger thing in 1962 than it is today. Its importance, the importance of doing it well, the difficulty of doing it well — these things are assumed, and spoken of not just openly, but pretty bluntly. To the point where today we would consider the attitude off-putting, if not elitist. Maybe similar to the sexism of washing machines being so great for women. This task is for you. Others will do this. I hold you unworthy of this one, but not this one.

I pulled the N volume to see what it said about the novel, to see if I might be allowed to write one by these guys from ’62. Here’s the first paragraph:

A novel is a long prose story that is largely imaginary…

Well, I knew that. But it goes on:

…Its chief purpose is to entertain, but its underlying aim is to help readers to understand life…

Well, then. That’s quite a task put to the novel writer. I’m not sure that message has gone out to some of the popular ones of our time. (I won’t mention any names.) Certainly a few ebook writers missed it. Nothing against those ebook writers, or those who read them.

…The novel mirrors the history of mankind. W. M. Thackeray’s Henry Esmond teaches us facts in English history; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tells of the plight of United States dustbowl farmers during the depression. [And] the novel may do more than mirror history: it may even influence it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave great impetus to the movement to free the slaves. Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby told such a pathetic story of the treatment of children in an English school that it led to a movement to reform education.

Okay, now comes the kicker…

The novel can not only teach people and help to shape society, but also it can make the reader a more understanding person, more tolerant and more sympathetic towards suffering.

The LGBT community is perking up at this. So are the Liberation Theologians. And anyone else who considers themselves oppressed in some way. But I’m afraid these white guys are talking about other white guys:

Reading a great novel like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is an emotional experience that can serve to broaden the humanity of the reader. Like a great play such as William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a great novel enriches the human spirit.

As it happens, the last novel I read was The Grapes of Wrath. And I would say that it did enrich my spirit. I learned more from it about the history of the dustbowl and the Great Depression, and what it must have been like to be an “Okie” driven from your land by corporate farming, than I did from any history class.

And it was damn good writing, too. You don’t much see writing that good anymore.

It seems the call is – maybe was, back in the day – to be the absolute best writers we can be. To move others with words, to educate, to entertain. To not just say something, but to say something of value, and say it well.

And today, the call might be to make the reader a more understanding person, more tolerant and more sympathetic towards suffering.

Or maybe it’s just to sell an ebook that might be good, might be crappy. Who cares so long as it sells.

So let me ask, when was the last time you read a novel that broadened your humanity or enriched your spirit? Does writing require an above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience? Have we lost a reverence for the craft of writing over the last fifty years, or is that an elitist, white, heterosexual, male washing-machines-are-for-women mindset?

How are the ebooks selling?

In closing, here are some thoughts on the Washing Machine, courtesy of 1962. (I apologize on behalf of all white men writing for World Book that year.)

washing machine

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 thoughts on “On Writing (and Washing Machines, and The Year 1962)

  1. I wish I could comment sufficiently on this post. It’s my favorite. That’s not even close to what I want my fingers to spell out, but … I’m just emotional. Things written well simply move me. And you, Sir, write well. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beginning my writing career in 1962, I didn’t have such lofty thoughts about the craft of writing. I was a journalist so the important thing was to tell the facts in an interesting and quick way. But I began to develop my skills with feature stories.

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    • Ah, yes. That would be a whole other topic of discussion: What has happened to journalism? Or has a thing happened to journalism at all? And is it for better or worse? Should something have happened, and didn’t? I should look up journalism in the ole World Book and see what there is to see. I’m sure it’s just as interesting.

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  3. What I find strange about this is the idea that one writer can dictate to others what is correct and what is not correct. They feel that they have some God-given right to say someone else is not a writer. It’s almost like people are afraid of competition from others, and that the presence of others is an affront to their own dignity or self-identification as an author. Was John Kennedy Toole not an author because he committed suicide before his novel was accepted and acknowledged as a masterpiece? Was Kafka a failed writer because so much of his work was unpublished at the time of his death?
    A writer writes, and that’s the end of it. The approval of others is unnecessary. Look at this way, I walk down the streets of Barcelona and I hear so many musicians and buskers who have real talent (and some appalling ones!). They’re just playing for pennies but some of them are really good. Are they not musicians because they don’t have a recording contract?
    Seeking the approval of others is a highway to nowhere. An artist should only answer to him or herself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting to think that the men writing these entries in the encyclopedia are, of course, writers themselves. Are they protecting their turf? I didn’t see the same high-mindedness in the posts about doctors and medicine:

      “Medicine offers wide opportunities for many different kinds of people who desire to relieve suffering humanity.”

      “Physicians and surgeons undergo a medical education that is expensive in both time and money.”

      If this requires an “above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience,” our attention is not so robustly called to it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I like the notion that good writing, like good art (defined as art you connect with personally, whatever that may be) inspires us to go do it ourselves, the notion something so beautiful and real that’s created by man, by woman, moves us to make it ourselves. That’s why I like to write, to think it might change others and make them see the world differently, perhaps move them to share how they see it too, as a result. Mark at Exile on Pain Street wrote a post about how reading To Kill a Mockingbird opened his eyes to the world of reading, changed him. A collection of Chekhov stories I’m reading now is having the same effect, that you can write and show scenes and characters that are real, and not get in the way of them, but be connected too — and connect it to the reader. Long way of saying, it’s about connection I think. And it seems simpler on the surface now to “connect” but you still need to look beneath the words. I’m going back to bed now, Walt.

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    • Well that’s a right noble reason for writing, sir. As noble as any of these old stodgies in the World Book have. You keep that up, we need you out there doing that. I’m serious. I saw that post you are talking about from Mark, that was indeed a good one. I will try Chekhov again, I will. Tried him a couple times, but he’s never met me where I’m at, although of course that’s more on me than him. You have to be ready for these things. Took me three false starts and a couple decades before Salinger and I could connect with Seymour: An Introduction. Not his fault, entirely mine. I wasn’t ready. You’re right, it is about connection. And the plugs have to fit. Have you read The Lady With the Pet Dog yet?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful questions posed here . . . Writing has become more expansive, I believe. It has evolved, too, with the times, competing with so many media/entertainment factors. Readers are less likely to stick around for long, lofty prose, however well-written. I don’t necessary think those statements are wrong or elitist; they merely reflect the mindset of their era. But there are so many types and ways of writing, many of which don’t necessarily require an “above-average mental capacity for observing and comprehending life and experience”. However, I believe literary fiction and perhaps excellent writing, in general, do. Hmmmm…. Still pondering. Great post.

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    • I think you are right, there, dd. I think what you are saying ties in directly with what the World Book folks had to say on the topic of Literature:

      “No adding machine could count the number of words people use each day. We greet a friend, discuss the music made by the school band, or proudly describe the family’s new automobile. Such conversations are quickly forgotten. We use today’s newspapers to start tomorrow’s fire. But some of the words which are spoken or written each day are worth keeping. They have value for the beauty of the ways in which they are used and for what they say.”

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  6. I think desertdweller makes a good point here – what your voice from 1962 is describing is what we’d now term ‘literary fiction’ – it’s still around. Maybe it sells in smaller numbers than it used to, but it’s still there. But now ‘genre’ fiction – no matter how snooty some commentators like to be about it – sells better and as publishing is a business and businesses do insist on trying to make a profit…

    I actually think that books outside of ‘literature’ can improve your mind and stretch how you think about humanity. YA author Patrick Ness’s More Than This is on the surface a fantasy adventure, but underneath it explored how we view death and the afterlife, our own and other people’s sexuality, the value of friendship. And Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is sci-fi, but really deals with what it is to be human, what it means to live as opposed to merely survive. Writers can deal with serious issues and still be readable.

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    • Agreed, she makes a good point. Part of my response was a bit from the same folks at WBE from the entry for “Literature.” And for as long as people have been buying, selling, and reading books, there have been writers who just told a good story and maybe sold a few books, but didn’t have much staying power. That’s the way it goes. Sometimes even some of the “classics” drop out of the canon over time.

      Yes, just because something is Young Adult doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to offer us Not-So-Young-Adults. I would even argue that many of the children’s classics like Stuart Little or Old Yeller are better written and more meaningful that what is sometimes written for Adult Adults.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Living on the Page | waltbox

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