A pen makes an excellent skewer, or a scalpel

“There’s only one way to make a beginning, and that is to begin; and begin with hard work, and patience, prepared for all the disappointments that were Martin Eden’s before he succeeded—which were mine before I succeeded…”

This is a quote that’s been going around from Jack London’s brutally honest reply to a young writer who sent him a manuscript.

By the standards of most bloggers and hobby writers, the fact that Max Fedder even finished a complete manuscript and mailed it off would qualify as a pretty strong “beginning” — but this is, to Jack London, a mere nothing!

Max Fedder finished a manuscript, but without investing years of hard work to make his craft good, and without devoting some intense study to what kind of writing people would pay money for. Mr. London appears to be telling him that he has in fact skipped the beginning.

“If a fellow harnesses himself to a star of $1000 week, he has to work proportion­ately harder than if he harnesses himself to a little glowworm of $20.00 a week. The only reason there are more successful blacksmiths in the world than successful writers, is that it is much easier, and requires far less hard work to become a successful blacksmith than does it to become a successful writer.

“It cannot be possible that you, at twenty, should have done the work at writing that would merit you success at writing… If you are going to write for success and money, you must deliver to the market marketable goods. Your short story is not marketable goods, and had you taken half a dozen evenings off and gone into a free reading room and read all the stories published in the current magazines, you would have learned in advance that your short story was not marketable goods.”

In this light, you realize that a 50,000-word NaNoWriMo manuscript is not really a beginning for someone who seriously wants to be a successful writer. It is more like practicing to begin.

It’s possible, of course, that Jack was not speaking objectively. You might suppose that, speaking from a place of hard-won material success, he wrote off the manuscript simply because of Max’s extreme youth. You can’t, however, come by this conclusion honestly without actually reading the manuscript that was sent to him — and then it’s your judgment against Jack London’s, for crying out loud. It’s Jack for my money; if anyone disagrees with him I will be honestly interested to know whether they have come by widely-acknowledged success in writing by some much easier means than he did.

One final word about money: Jack London appears in this letter to use it as a yardstick for merit, which some might object to. But Max was clearly aiming for success in the marketplace — that much is clear simply from the fact that he sent his story to to someone who had already gained success in that marketplace, hoping for a good word and a quick reputation. Jack is only telling this fellow what he needs to do to succeed in the marketplace he has chosen. If you write purely for its own sake, you do well; but once you attach to any gaining idea — wealth, or fame — you cannot avoid having your effort measured by its market value.

Examine what it is you actually desire to accomplish by your effort, and whether your effort in that direction is pure, or whether it pretends to be something it is not. If you write purely for the sake of expressing yourself, do so without repentance towards anyone’s judgement, and do not hope to gain by it. If, however, you write for the joy of producing saleable goods that have recognized quality, this is how to make a real and honest beginning at harnessing yourself to that star.