Listening to the literature for the writer’s process

This past week, I happened upon a quote from the Introductory Epistle of The Fortunes of Nigel [1822] (written, if you don’t already know, as part of the much larger series known as Waverley Novels), by Sir Walter Scott. Reading it, I wondered if Scott wasn’t providing his own thoughts in the imaginary author being interviewed. Certainly, it’s no great surprise as authors, from time to time, do project themselves and their opinions in the characters they develop. Yet, it’s particularly interesting in that Scott projects philosophies that are relevant to his personal writing process, as well as the aftermath of publication (fame and/or famine). In fact, I felt this was an autobiographical snippet on himself as an author. Looking further into various resources, I found, in Autobiography of Sir Walter Scott (1831), Scott confirmed my suspicions:

I was never, I confess, one of those who are willing to suppose the brains of an author to be a kind of milk, which will not stand above a single creaming, and who are eternally harping to young authors, to husband their efforts and to be chary of their reputation, lest it grow hackneyed in the eyes of men. Perhaps I was, and have always been, the more indifferent to the degree of estimation in which I might be held as an author, because I did not put so high a value, as many others, upon what is termed literary reputation in the abstract, or at least upon the species of popularity which had fallen to my share; for though it were worse than affection to deny that my vanity was gratified at my success in the department in which chance had in some measure enlisted me, I was, nevertheless, far from thinking that the novelist or romance writer stands high in the ranks of literature. But I spare the reader farther egotism on the subject, as I have expressed my opinion very fully in the Introductory Epistle of the Fortunes of Nigel; and although it be composed in an imaginary character, it is as sincere and candid as if it had been written “without my gown and band.

In a word, as soon as I found myself successful, I was tempted to try whether I could not restore, even at the risk of totally losing, my so called reputation, by a new hazard. I looked round my library, and could not but observe, that, from the time of Chaucer to that of Byron, the most popular authors had been the most prolific. Even the Aristarch Johnson allowed that the quality of readiness and profusion had a merit in itself, independent of the intrinsic value of the composition. Talking of Churchill, I believe, who had little merit in his prejudiced eyes, he allowed him that of fertility, with some such qualification as this: “A crab-apple can bear but crabs after all; but there is as great difference in favor of that which bears so large quantity of fruit, however indifferent, and that which produces only a few.”

There’s a great deal more, and, for the reader who writes and is curious about Scott’s perspective on process and motivation, I encourage further study of Scott’s autobiography.

So, keeping in mind that you are “listening” for Scott’s process and thinking on writing, consider a few paragraphs from The Fortunes of Nigel:

… that I should write with sense of spirit a few scenes, unlaboured and loosely put together, but which had sufficient interest in them to amaze in one corner the pain of body; in another, to relieve anxiety of mind; in a third place, to unwrinkled a brow bent with the furrows of daily toil; in another, to fill the place of bad thoughts, or to suggest better; in yet another, to induce an idler to study the history of his country; in all, save where the perusal interrupted the discharge of serious duties, to furnish harmless amusement, – might not the author of such a work, however inartificially executed, plead for his errors and negligence the excuse of the slave, who was about to be punished for having spread the false report of a victory, – “Am I to blame, O Athenians, who have given you one happy day?”

“My fame? – I will answer you as a very ingenious, able, and experienced friend, when counsel for the notorious Jem Mac-Coul, replied to the opposite side of the bar, when they laid weight on his client’s refusing to answer certain queries, which they said any man who had regard for his reputation would not hesitate to reply to. ‘My client’ said he – by the way, Jem was standing behind him at the time, and a rich scene it was – “is so unfortunate as to have no regard for his reputation; and I should deal very uncandidly with the court, should I say he had any that was worth his attention.’ – I am, though from very different reasons, in Jem’s happy state of indifference. Let fame follow those who have a substantial shape. A shadow – and an impersonal author is nothing better – can cast no shade.”

“For the critics, they have their business, and I mine.”

“I am their humble jackal, too busy in providing food for them, to have time for considering whether they swallow or reject it. – To the public, I stand pretty nearly in the relation of the postman who leaves a packet at the door of an individual. If it contains pleasing intelligence, a billet from a mistress, a letter from an absent son, a remittance from a correspondent supposed to be bankrupt, – the letter is acceptably welcome, and read and re-read, folded up, filed, and safely deposited in the bureau. If the contents are disagreeable, if it comes from a dun or from a bore, the correspondent is cursed, the letter is thrown into the fire, and the expense of postage is heartily regretted; while all the while the bearer of the dispatches is, in either case, as little thought on as the snow of last Christmas. The utmost extent of kindness between the author and the public which can really exist, is, that the world are disposed to be somewhat indulgent to the succeeding works of an original favourite, were it but on account of the habit which the public mind has acquired; while the author very naturally thinks well of their taste, who have so liberally applauded his productions. But I deny there is any call for gratitude, properly so called, either one side or the other.”

Captain: “Respect to yourself, then, ought to teach caution.”

Author. Ay, if caution could augment the chance of my success. But, to confess to you the truth, the works and passages in which I have succeeded, have uniformly been written with the greatest rapidity; and when I have seen some of these placed in opposition with others, and commended as more highly finished, I could appeal to pen and Standish, that the parts in which I have come feebly off, were by much the more labored. Besides, I doubt the beneficial effect of too much delay, both on account of the author and the public. A man should strike while the iron is hot, and hoist sail while the wind fair. If a successful author keep not the stage, another instantly takes his ground. If a writer lie by for ten years ere he produces a second work, he is superceded by others; or, if the age is so poor of genius that this does not happen, his own reputation becomes his greatest obstacle. The public will expect the new work to be ten times better than its predecessor; the author will expect it should be ten times more popular, and ‘tis a hundred to ten that both are disappointed.”

Captain: This may justify a certain degree of rapidity in publication, but not that which is proverbially said to be no speed. You should take time as least to arrange your story.

Author: That is a sore point with me, my son. Believe me, I have not been fool enough to neglect ordinary precautions. I have repeatedly laid down my future works to scale, divided it into volumes and chapters, and endeavored to construct a story which I meant should evolve itself gradually and strikingly, maintain suspense, and stimulate curiosity; and which, finally, should terminate in a striking catastrophe. But I think there is a demon who seats himself on the feather of my pen when I begin to write, and leads it astray from the purpose. Characters expand under my hand; incidents are multiplied; the story lingers, while the materials increase; my regular mansion turns out a Gothic anomaly, and the work is closed long before I have attained the point I proposed.

Captain: Resolution and determined forbearance might remedy that evil.

Author: Alas! my dear sir, you do not know the force of paternal affection. When I light on such a character as Bailie Jarvie, or Dalgetty, my imagination brightness, and my conception becomes clearer at every step which I take in his company, although it leads me many a weary mile away from the regular road, and forces me to leap hedge and ditch to get back into the route again. If I resist the temptation, as you advise me, my thoughts become prosy, flat, and dull; I write painfully to myself, and under a consciousness of flagging which makes me flag still more; the sunshine with which fancy had invested the incidents, departs from them, and leaves every thing dull and gloomy. I am no more the same author I was in my better mood, than the dog in a wheel, condemned to go round and round for hours, is like the same dog merrily chasing his own tail, and gamboling in all the frolic of unrestrained freedom. In short, sir, on such occasions, I think I am bewitched.

For more philosophy on writing, from Scott (cloaked in his fictional author in Introductory Epistle of The Fortunes of Nigel), see this link.


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