How to Write Short Stories: The Necessary Mental Equipment

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Why should the Post Editor have to write all the advice columns? Here's a guest instructor, one L Josephine Bridgart by name. This is Chapter Two of her fascinating how-to book, How to Write Short Stories, 1921. We thought the 'mental equipment' chapter was particularly useful for h2g2.

How to Write Short Stories

The Necessary Mental Equipment

William Shakespeare suffering from writer's block

In my first chapter I spoke of the necessity of every writer's understanding the principles underlying the work of authorship. I hope no person will peruse my chapter and then decide that he cannot expect to succeed because he cannot afford to go to college or take up any special course in English. If you can turn out clear, idiomatic English sentences that will stand grammatical analysis you need not fear failure because you were obliged to leave school before you could win a single diploma1. A man may be a very good book-keeper and yet never have been to business college. The question is: Can he keep books satisfactorily? If he can his employer does not in the least care how he obtained his knowledge.

Some persons have a natural appreciation of the principles of style, of rhyme and meter, of
construction. They read a forceful passage or a beautiful poem or a carefully built argument and
they immediately appreciate the rules which govern it. They may not be able to quote any rules,
but nevertheless they "sense" them and follow them faithfully in their own work. Upon how
much natural appreciation of order, harmony, melody you may have depends the amount of
actual study you must give to your preparation for the work of authorship.

I believe that it is possible to unfit one's self for the real business of writing for publication by too much preparation, too much regular study. I have read articles intended for the popular
magazines which would be meaningless to the average intelligent workman and the great mass
of thoughtful and successful business men; and the writer hadn't the slightest intention of soaring
over anybody's head. I have met university graduates who were trying to write for publications
and who violated the fundamental principles of style and even the rules of grammar. I have
known more than one would-be waiter who seemed unable to discuss anything nearer the interests of the mass of magazine readers than such subjects as "Little Known Comedies of Shakespeare's Time" or "A Psychological Study of Charlotte Bronte2." If courses in English can make a man unable to communicate with intelligent persons who have been interested in other fields of investigation, or so filled with admiration for the masterpieces of literature that he forgets such commonplaces as coherence in the sentence and a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in person, number and gender3, and cannot appreciate the fun and pathos and beauty about him, it may be a blessing that no course in higher English is possible for you.

A woman who has for years earned her living by literary work told me that while in college
she once consulted her English instructor about some additional work in English. "You don't
need more English," the instructor replied. "What you need is a broader outlook. You need experience of life."

'Oh !" exclaimed the student. Then she asked timidly, "But haven't I a broader outlook than
most of the members of my class? I'm older than most of them, and I lived pretty hard between my high school and college courses. Haven't I a broader outlook than most of the others ?"

"A hundred times broader," the instructor replied. "I wasn't comparing you with the other members of your class but with George Eliot and other women who have succeeded as authors, the women whose profession you wish to enter. You can't become an author by just studying English."

Not long afterwards the girl was obliged to leave college, but the fact that she could not complete her English course did not worry her. The instructor had made her eager to fare forth into the world in search of that knowledge of life which, to the writer with natural ability, means

"But how can I tell whether I have this 'natural abifity' or not?" asks a young writer. "My English is good, and I am never at a loss for words to express my thoughts. My friends enjoy my letters, and at school the teachers always praised my themes. But hundreds of other young men and women could claim as much. I love to write, but how can I know that I have the natural equipment necessary to success as an author?"

The questioner shows that she has at least one requisite in the making of a successful author, a natural liking for the work of writing. How strong is your desire to write? Do you instinctively pick up a pad and pencil when you are free to think ? Has it ever been pain to you not to be
at liberty to put upon paper a thought that has just sprung up or that has been slowly developing in your busy brain? Love for the work of writing, a desire to express yourself, not in a picture or a statue or a piece of machinery, but in articles or stories or poems, this seems to me pretty sure evidence of natural ability. If you have to drive yourself to your desk I do not believe nature intended you to be a writer, no matter how correctly and pleasingly you can run words together. What do you write when you feel you "must sit down and scribble," your own thoughts, or somebody else's? Is your desire to write a desire for self-expression or is it just a fondness for
putting words and sentences together? When your religious poem is finished is it made up of scraps from familiar hymns, phrases from the Bible, a statement that appealed to you; in last Sunday's sermon, or is it a bit of your own observation, your own experience, your own passionate love for God, or Christ, or the church? Is your article a careful setting forth of information gleaned from other articles or your own convictions, so strong that you had to put them in writing, whether you offered your manuscript for sale or not? Is your story life as you know life can be, or just an imitation of some story seen in print or an adaption of some play viewed from a comfortable seat in your favorite theatre?

In your story of sentiment are your characters the result of a study of certain combinations of defects and virtues, with power to utter a clear warning or a word of hope, or to give the reader a healthful laugh? Or are your men and women and children picked out from other stories or just attractive pictures with no life, no strength, no vivacity? In other words, have you something to say or only the power to group sentences and paragraphs into certain accepted forms?

A woman told me that she had been urged by her friends to write; they thought she had considerable talent. She then naively asked me if I would suggest something for her to write about. It is thoughts, not words and sentences, that the editors are willing to pay for. If you have nothing to write about, don't write.

A friend of mine who is very much interested in another profession than authorship told me wistfully that she envied those who could put their thoughts into lasting form. Not long afterwards a well-known magazine asked her for an article. A little later another magazine, which is working along the same lines as those my friend's profession follows, urged her to write a series of articles for its pages. She had never offered a manuscript to any periodical.

"Favored because she has a prominent position and can place several letters after her name?" No, not that. The editors have sought her out because she has thought and studied and experimented until she knows more about certain subjects than you and I do, and an article from her on one of these subjects, though her style may be inferior to ours, is worth a great deal more to the reading public than one on the same subject from you or me.

Have you discovered something that the rest of the world doesn't know? Have you seen sorrow or joy or sin or repentance as those about you have not seen it? Have you the power to find "something funny" in an experience which merely angers or depresses or bores other eople4? Have you anything at all to offer that can make life seem more serious, more joyous or more beautiful than it was before? Natural ability is more than the ability to express one's self easily in written words. It includes the power to find something to write about in the day's work and play, sorrow and pleasure.

To reiterate: If you have a love for writing, unusual powers of penetration or appreciation or
a mass of valuable information obtained at first hand and have mastered the fundamental principles of the work of authorship you are well-equipped mentally for the business of writing for publication.

"I have appreciation," replies some young writer wistfully, "and I can talk or write fluently when I'm not vitally interested in what I'm saying. But when it comes to putting my deeper self, my highest thought into black and white I'm stricken. powerless. I can write only what seems to me not worth printing."

I once heard a story about a young man who wanted to take up a study of the piano. The
teacher to whom he appHed for instruction gave him a piano stool, sat down beside him and called his attention to the key-board. "This," explained the teacher, indicating the middle c, "is c. We may find all the other keys by this. The one immediately below is b, the one below that is a.
The one next above is d, the next e. and so on up to g."

'I see," relied the pupil respectfully. "Now let's play the Moonlight Sonata!"

It takes practice as well as natural ability and a knowledge of the rules to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It takes practice as well as a knowledge of the English language and natural ability to produce a group of high-grade poems or articles or stories. Don't decide that you have not the necessary natural equipment and can never succeed in the profession of authorship because you can't write an epic or a masterpiece of fiction at the very beginning of your literary

Editor's Note: I like this woman. Another honorary h2g2er.

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

18.02.19 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1This was a serious concern to professional writers in the US in the 1920s: an awful lot of our very best writers couldn't afford even a high school education. John Steinbeck was self-taught, and a hobo. He won the Nobel Prize. He didn't do it by neglecting his commas, however.2Those sound like Guide Entries….3Why do those things matter? Because if you confuse the heck out of your reader, that reader will run away. As with any game, you have to play fair in literature.4What good questions.

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