LEARNING TO WRITE - Suggestions And Counsel From Robert Louis Stevensonby Robert Louis Stevenson
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How Stevenson would have developed his proposed book, The Art of Literature, we may only guess, for the project never found tangible form further than the "loose ends" in scattered essays and random observations spontaneously put into his pages by way of apt illustration or to clinch the point in a criticism. Yet, in those unjointed observations, the spirit of the book was truly born and—as the brief character of Julius Caesar dominates Shakespeare's play— its personality pervades and colors all of Stevenson's works.
He himself points out in his paper, "Fontainebleau," that while he was learning to write he spent much of his time in Barbizon in the company of painters. Surrounded by this atmosphere in which art was made by the labor of the hands, and was obviously blundered or created according to their skill in the principles of technique—the necessity of a technique in all art was made vividly clear to him.
"To find for all he had to say words of vital aptness and animation—to communicate as much as possible of what he has somewhere called 'the incommunicable thrill of things'— was from the first his endeavor—nay more, it was the main passion of his life," says his great friend Sidney Colvin. It is not unnatural, then, that he determined to achieve a technique in writing and that his interest in the craft of literature—the means of commanding expression—should have moved him deeply.
No writer ever took more pains to learn how to write, and it is significant that no author in modern times has been so successful in so many forms of literature. It is significant, too, for his theories of craftsmanship that he has gained the interest of an astonishingly wide and varied audience, and that along with the perfection in form and style which gives pleasure chiefly to the fastidious, he appeals (speaking from Colvin again) "rather to the universal, hereditary instincts, to the primitive sources of imaginative excitement in the race."
Of course, this tremendous practical success of his books is what has kept his prescribed canons of learning how to write before the world—and to-day they have been so much heralded that people who have not read half a dozen pages in his books know something about them. Yet, in spite of the constant reference to them—in spite of discussion prolonged from year to year—there has never before been a systematic attempt to gather together and arrange in one volume all he has left directly on the art of writing;—that is what this book has tried to do. How significant such a collection will be remains to be proved; at least, to any one seriously concerned with the business of learning to write, it will be interesting to examine, and the reader cannot turn away from it except refreshed with the splendid saneness. But he who comes seeking a macadamized, mile-posted road to the secret of writing, or a set of classroom rules to be duly worked out with an academic niceness will be disappointed. For definite as is the trade of writing, it is the united cry of all good craftsmen in the profession of letters that for each man literature is an uncharted sea and that the waves wash away the track of every vessel that has gone before. Yet, here is the log of one such vessel which made her port with colors flying, and for those who have a genuine taste for the sea—an instinct for its language and hardships—there is much to be learned which will help them on their adventures.
In arranging the contents of this book, it has been the plan to try to group them so the reader may learn something of Stevenson's theory of the craft of writing before he is led into a discussion of the intricate technical details. In some cases, for instance in the passages from A Humble Remonstrance, the editor has omitted certain parts which if included in the present scheme would uselessly tend to confuse the reader.
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