The Art of Writing
WHETHER I placed the writing-pad on my knees in a great chair, or on the table, or on the floor, nothing happened to it. I can only say that that morning the paper was full of vile hairs, which the pen kept getting into its mouth--enough to ruin the goodwill of any pen. Yet all the circumstances of the room seemed luckily placed for work to flow with ease; but there was some mysterious and inimical obstruction. The fire was bright and lively, the familiar objects about the table appeared to be in their right places. Again I examined the gods of the table to be sure one had not by mischance broken the magic circle and interrupted the current of favour for me. They were rightly orientated--that comic pebble paper-weight Miss Muffet found on the beach of a distant holiday, the chrysanthemums which were fresh from that very autumn morning, stuck in the blue vase which must have got its colour in the Gulf Stream; and the rusty machete blade from Peru, and the earthenware monkey squatting meekly in his shadowy niche, holding the time in his hands. The time was going on, too.
I tried all the tricks I knew for getting under way, but the pen continued to do nothing but draw idle faces and pick up hairs, which it held firmly in its teeth. Then the second telegram was brought to me. "What about Balkan article?" it asked, and finished with a studied insult, after the manner of the editor-kind, whose assurance that the function of the universe is only fulfilled when they have published the fact makes them behave as would Jove with a thick-headed immortal. "These Balkan atrocities will never cease," I said, dropping the telegram into the fire.
Had I possessed but one of those intelligent manuals which instruct the innocent in the art, not only of writing, but of writing so well that a very disappointed and world-weary editor rejoices when he sees the manuscript, puts his thumbs up and calls for wine, I would have consulted it. (I should be glad to hear if there is such a book, with a potent remedy for just common dullness--the usual opaque, gummous, slow, thick, or fat head.) As for me, I have nothing but a cheap dictionary, and that I could not find. I raised my voice, calling down the hollow, dusty, and unfurnished spaces of my mind, summoning my servants, my carefully chosen but lazy and wilful staff of words, to my immediate aid. But there was no answer; only the cobwebs moved there, though I thought I heard a faint buzzing, which might have been a blow-fly. No doubt my staff--small blame to them--were dreaming somewhere in the sun, dispersed over several seas and continents.
Well, a suburb of a big town, and such jobs as I find for them to do, are grey enough for them in winter. I have no doubt some were nooning it in Algiers, and others were prospecting the South Seas, flattering themselves, with gross vanity, how well they could serve me there, if only I would give them a chance with those coloured and lonely islands; and others were in the cabins of ships far from any land, gossiping about old times; and these last idle words, it is my experience, are the most stubborn of the lot, usually ignoring all my efforts to get them home again and to business. I could call and rage as I chose, or entreat them, showing them the urgency of my need. But only a useless and indefinite article came along, as he usually does, hours and hours before the arrival of a lusty word which could throw about the suggestions quicker than they may be picked up and examined.
Very well. There was nothing for it but to fill another pipe, and dwell with some dismay upon such things as, for instance, the way one's light grows smoky with age. Is there a manual which will help a man to keep his light shining brightly--supposing he has a light to keep? But if he has but the cheapest of transient glims, good and bright enough for its narrow purpose, is it any wonder it burns foul, seeing what business usually it gets to illuminate in these exciting and hurried times. What work I think it would make rebels of the most quiet, unadventurous, and simple-featured troop of words that ever a man gathered about him for the plain domestic duties to employ them regularly, for example, in sweeping up into neat columns such litter as the House of Commons makes. It would numb the original heart of the bonniest set of words that rightly used would have made some people happy--sterilise them, make them anæmic and pasty-faced, so that they would disturb the peace of mind of all compassionate men who looked upon them. That my own staff of words refused my summons . . . .
But what was it I said I wanted them for just now? I gazed round the walls upon the portraits of the great writers of the past, hoping for inspiration. Useless Upon Emerson's face there was a faint smile of most infuriating benevolence. Lamb--but I am getting tired of his smirk, which might be of irony or kindness. He would look savage enough to-day, hearing his constantly returning Dissertation on Roast Pig thump the door-mat four times a week; for that, he can be assured, is the way editors would treat it now, and without even preliminary consultations with lady typist-secretaries. Of the whole gallery of the great I felt there was not one worth his wall room. They are pious frauds. This inspiration business is played out. I have never had the worth of the frames out of those portraits. . . . Ah, the Balkans. That was it. And of all the flat, interminable Arctic wastes of bleak wickedness and frozen error that ever a shivering writer had to traverse . . . .
My head was in my hands, and I was trying to get daylight and direction into the affair with my eyes shut, when I felt a slight touch on my arm. "I'm sorry we're in your way. Are you praying? Look who's here."
I looked. It was Miss Muffet who spoke. She shook the gold out of her eyes and regarded me steadily. Well she knew she had no right there, for all her look of confident and tender solicitude. The Boy, who is a little older (and already knows enough to place the responsibility for intrusion on his sister with her innocent eyes and imperturbable calm and golden hair), stood a little in the background, pretending to be engrossed with a magnet, as though he were unaware that he was really present. Curls hopped about on one leg frankly, knowing that the others would be blamed for any naughtiness of hers. Her radiant impudence never needs any apology. What a plague of inconsequential violators of any necessary peace When would my lucky words come now?
The Boy probably saw a red light somewhere. "Haven't you finished uncle we thought you had has a topsail schooner got two or three masts I saw a fine little engine up in the town to-day and an aeroplane it was only seventeen shillings do you think that is too much?"
"I am learning the sailors' hornpipe at school," said Miss Muffet, slowly and calmly; "you watch my feet. Do I dance it nicely?"
I watched her feet. Now it is but fair to say that when Miss Muffet dances across a room there is no international crisis in all this world which would distract any man's frank admiration. When Miss Muffet steps it on a sunny day, her hair being what it is, and her little feet in her strap shoes being such as they are, then your mood dances in accord, and your thoughts swing in light and rhythmic harmony. I got up. And Curls, who is one of those who must mount stairs laboriously, secure to the rails--she has black eyes only the bright light of which is seen through her mane--she reached up for my hand, for she cannot imitate her sister's hornpipe without holding on.
Miss Muffet reached a corner of the room, and swung round, light as a fairy, her hands on her hips, and said, "What do you think of that?" Some of my lucky words instantly returned. I suppose it was more to their mind. But I had nothing to give them to do. They could just stand around and look on now, for when Curls seriously imitates her sister, and then laughs heartily at her own absurd failure, because her feet are irresponsible, that is the time when you have nothing to do, and would not do anything if it had to be done. . . .
What time it was the next interruption came--it was another telegram--I don't know. Time had been obliterated. But then it began to flow again; though not with a viscid and heavy measure. And when I took up my light and ready pen, there, standing at eager attention, was all my staff, waiting the call. What had happened to bring them all back? If the writers of literary manuals will explain that secret to me, I should acquire true wealth.