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Writing Short Stories - What Knowledge Must I Have To Succeed?

( Originally Published 1922 )



Is Book Education Essential?—I wish I could proclaim the following to the whole world as my audience. It is such good news to all who are held down by doubt that every-one should know about it. Let me state with the utmost emphasis at my command that thousands of writers have succeeded and are succeeding despite the lack of a good education or of any education at all, as it is known in the common sense. It is a matter of fact that a majority of writers, mod-ern and ancient, have not been scholars or learned men in any theoretical sense. And it is absolutely true that college-bred people cannot succeed one wit quicker or easier than a person with very much less academic education.

Nature a Splendid Teacher.—Of course, if one wished to be a doctor, a professor, a chemist, or a lawyer, he perforce must be well educated in one of those particular lines. The literary aspirant, on the other hand, has only to sit at the feet of nature, in its material and human aspects—listening carefully to what it has to say. Literature in all its phases deals with people and events, while a college education can teach you no more about the vital factors of human nature than you can learn daily in your own sphere of existence, be it large or small. True, a study of history may teach one much about the fashion of motives and emotions that have moved men to do certain things, yet, is it not true that since the world moves in a cycle, history constantly is repeating herself ?

'Why a College Is Not the Best Place to Study Life.-A college education is of little or no use whatever in helping one to become a successful writer, simply because the college student does not have the opportunity, in his rather isolated and secluded and artificial life, of rubbing elbows with struggling, rejoicing, and throbbing multitudes engaged in all their world-wide battles—of love, success, redemption—on and on without end. It is by no means the story containing the most facts or knowledge that is the most successful; an l article is most marketable, of course, when it is authoritative and when the writer has at his finger-tips a mass of facts and anecdotes that he may choose at random for the purpose of impressing his topic upon the readers' mind, whereas the materials that make up a story customarily are fictitious and theoretical learning very rarely enters into one. Usually, the college student has very little occasion to learn enough about the real interesting phases of human nature that should serve as the themes for worth-while stories. A man who has his way paid through college and who is engaged in the rather artifical activities of college life, has not the time, the inclination, or the opportunity to see and experience life in its actual colors. It is inevitable that, taking two young men, one an attendant at some university, the other just an ordinary individual engaged in one of the innumerable struggles for existence, that from the life of him who is out meeting people, in solving problems, and overcoming the obstacles of actual, concrete life, would be thrown off more vital sparks of truth that would serve as good plots or ideas for stories, than from the study, the athletics, the sports and the pleasures of the college-bred man.

Getting from Life What You Put into It.—Some time ago one of America's leading women's publication had a contest to which several hundred college-bred girls were urged to submit stories. Large cash offers were made for the best stories and the magazine agreed to use any others that were suitable to its policy. Much to the astonishment of the editorial staff, not a single one of the stories proved accept-able. One of the editors, in commenting on the fact, stated that the stories all showed a deplorable lack of knowledge concerning human nature. The stories, while excellently written, were too artifical, unnatural, and uninteresting. And all because very few of these girls had felt keenly enough the truths of human nature. Life had left none of its tracings upon them—they had been leading sheltered and sequestered lives, and the things they wrote of were not vital to them. They had not learned that to reproduce life interestingly, one must live life interestingly—that to write of love—not the mawkish or sentimental kind, but of the love that moves the soul—one must have loved deeply and sincerely. Moreover, most of these young ladies were not even in a position to observe the seething masses about them—were not even interested in them—did not have occasion to use them at first hand. It is not necessary, by any means, that the whole gauntlet of human experiences be run before one can write successfully of various emotions; on the other hand, it is not possible to photograph a running brook and to develop from the negative the picture of a mother with a child in her arms. If a person has not engaged actually in the struggle of humanity, or at least does not have some sympathy with and understanding of its struggles, he can not hope to reproduce life interestingly. The ways of life do not quite reach the college student, as a rule. They roll on by him and do not engulf him in their fold until he has struck out from the protection of alma mater to graduate into the university of life.

The Only Advantage of the College Man.—I do not wish to be misunderstood. Not for the world do I want the reader to believe that the college student has not an equal chance with anyone else to succeed in writing. His temporary sojourn in the hall of knowledge will have kept him from the full knowledge of life that a younger person already will have gained from the ordinary pursuits of life, but the college student will have gained in power of expression and in the ability to express himself with ability and preciseness. Yet, as a rule, the ordinary young person who does not contemplate going to school will learn more about human nature in one year than the college student can in four years, unless the college student is earning his way through college and is actually doing the things that help, make the world go round.

Looking About and Seeing.—The preceding section has not been written with the intention of decrying a college education. A college education is a very excellent and necessary thing in some lines but is not necessary for a full triumph in the field of writing. And I do not wish any college student who may read this section to be discouraged. Anyone with broad-mindedness and clear-sightedness enough to look around him and to accept nature at its face value, can choose from what he sees some particular phase of human nature in incidents and situations that will bring this trait out clearly and thrillingly and charmingly. The advice imparted in this system is ail that is necessary to give a knowledge of the principles necessary to proceed to write. I say this at the risk of being accused of presumptuousness.

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