Writing Wisdom from Jack London
Writing my novel has been my first real education in the narrative arts. In addition to a daily writing practice and subjecting my writing to editorial critique, I have been reading more than ever before. I have been reading classic and modern novels, studying the lives of established authors and learning the fundamentals of craft. Currently I am reading a biography of Jack London which so far has confirmed my belief that
- real-life experience and adventure provides the greatest fodder for fiction and
- persistence renders failure impossible.
By the time he established himself as one of America’s most important writers in his early twenties, London had already been the primary breadwinner for his house for a decade, as a factory-worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, gold prospector, university student and political leader.
He sailed the Pacific and Bering sea hunting seals for nine months. He rode the American rails with the homeless and did thirty days in jail for vagrancy. He traveled by foot through Alaskan mountains in search of Klondike gold then built a boat out of a tree he chopped down and sailed home through the deadly rapids of the Yukon river. He never finished high school but got into U.C. Berkeley. He gave speeches nightly on the Oakland city hall lawn, espousing socialist ideals and calling for revolution. He ran for mayor of Oakland.
When he set his mind to make a living as a writer, he was met with rejection after rejection. He gave up for periods at a time, but always returned to his desk and he wrote and submitted his work profusely and continued to be rejected profusely. “I’m going to stick to my writing,” he said, “and the publishers are going to accept it whether they like it or not. And some of these days they’ll be glad to take the stuff they’ve rejected and pay me a good price for it; you just wait and see.”
After ascending to the heights of the literary elite, he offered the following advice to aspiring writers:
“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint’, and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year. Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your teeth. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.
See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all. And keep a notebook. Travel with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than grey matter, and lead pencil marking endures longer than memory. And work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time. Find about this earth, this universe, this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to the Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well. The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH, WORK and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth, SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.”
photo by Pablo Sanchez