Mark Twain on Amateur Authors

Twain's Autobiography (cover)

In his autobiography, Twain writes:

Not even the most confident untrained soldier offers himself as a candidate for brigadier-generalship, yet this is what the amateur author does. With his untrained pen he puts together his crudities and offers them to all the magazines, one after the other—that is to say, he proposes them for posts restricted to literary generals who have earned their rank and place by years and even decades of hard and honest training in the lower grades of the service.

How times have changed, right? Right. He goes on:

We do not realize how strange and curious a thing this is until we look around for an object lesson whereby to realize it to us.

He proposes: opera. Suppose a man signs up for second tenor with the opera and (just pretend) suppose he gets the slot without a tryout. They go to perform.

After the first act the manager calls the second tenor to account and wants to know. He says:

“Have you ever studied music?”

“A little—yes, by myself, at odd times, for amusement.”

“You have never gone into regular and laborious training, then, for the opera, under the masters of the art?”

“No.”

“Then what made you think you could do second tenor in Lohengrin?”

“I thought I could. I wanted to try. I seemed to have a voice.”

“Yes, you have a voice, and with five years of diligent training under competent masters you could be successful, perhaps, but I assure you you are not ready for second tenor yet. You have a voice; you have presence; you have a noble and childlike confidence; you have a courage that is stupendous and even superhuman. There are all essentials and they are in your favor but there are other essentials in this great trade which you still lack. If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire them leave opera alone and try something which does not require training and experience. Go away now and try for a job in surgery.”

Writing is an art. It requires patient training, lots of practice, drafts and “workouts” and other sorts of exercises. It requires patient and careful attention to words, style, narrative. It’s a craft that has to be learned, that requires, according to Twain, “apprenticeship.” What would this study “under the masters” look like in this field?

Well, Twain isn’t talking about grad school. Maybe an MFA gives you a leg up, maybe not. But Twain knew nothing of graduate “creative writing” programs. As far as I can tell, he knew about “critique groups” only in the sense that he had others (notably his wife) read and critique and edit his work. But neither of these is what he had in mind. From what I gather of his life story, his own journalistic career was a major part of his training. Getting published in countless brief columns, reporting, working the beat in California. This went on for years. He then, as he describes it, fell into the lecture circuit at a time when it was thriving. Writing entertaining lectures that proved to be successful was, then, another kind of “honest training in the lower grades of the service.” His first break-out book, The Innocents Abroad, began as reportage from aboard a steamship touring the Holy Land. He talks, in that book, about how many passengers meant to keep a journal, and how many succeeded—him.

Something Twain doesn’t mention as clearly, that he might have taken for granted, and that’s certainly visible in his works, is his careful, patient reading of literature. For instance, he once found James Fenimore Cooper guilty of 114 of 115 possible literary offenses (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” North American Review, 1895). He praises the literary merits of Kipling’s works, discusses the stylistic excellence of certain biblical passages, weighs the literary merits of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, lampoons literary excesses in pop-fiction of his day. His patient, careful reading and attention to style are evident in what he produced.

So there you have it: Twain’s recipe for apprenticeship, for learning from the masters. With some natural ability, hard work, careful reading, willingness to learn, humble efforts at less-than-glamorous publication, he promises that “you could be successful, perhaps.” But, as he puts it (and I paraphrase):

If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire the essentials in this great trade that don’t result from natural ability, leave writing alone and try something which does not require training and experience.

Does that sting? Maybe you (and I) need a little antiseptic.

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