Main Contents & Search
from "Habits of Authors: How Some New England Story Writers Work"
By Annie C. Muirhead
Boston Evening Transcript 1899, p.15
Everybody who writes, even in the humblest way, is interested in everybody else who writes. I have often felt I should like to know just what were the working habits of certain of the story writers whose stories I have enjoyed. The smallest facts concerning their work--the kind of paper they used--whether they wrote with pen or pencil--what hours of the day they did their best work; such items of information I knew would interest me; and the step to supposing that they might interest others was not hard to take.
I was further encouraged by the kindly reception I met with from the writers in question. They all seemed to like to talk about their work--people always do like to talk about their work, I think, when the work is at all congenial--and were prepared to meet me halfway in giving me the kind of information I sought.
There were several main divisions into which my questions grouped themselves. Firstly, I was interested, as I have said, in the details of the workshop. Secondly, I was anxious to find out how far these writers were accustomed to work by system--that is, whether just so many hours each day, and always the same hours, and whether they felt in a good working mood or not, or whether they were more disposed to trust to the inclination of the moment. Again, I was curious to know how many of them had worked consciously at the cultivation of "style," as Stevenson used to do, hunting painstakingly for the right word, and so on; or whether they depended on their ideas clothing themselves unconsciously, as it were, with "style." Lastly, I wanted to hear how they first got started on their literary career.
With these leading ideas in mind, I sought out in turn Miss Sarah Jewett, Miss Mary E. Wilkins, Miss Anna Fuller and Miss Eliza White; and the following paper gives the results of my interviews with them.
To begin with, none of them made claims to systematic habits of work. Miss Jewett thinks she could be systematic if she got a chance; if, for instance, she could "get away from envelopes [enevelopes]," as she expressed it, so as not to be tempted into writing the numerous notes that are so necessary to be written, and which yet interfere with one's work so much! She seemed strongly impressed by the difficulty women have in working at home, on account of the many claims made on their attention; and thinks it would be advisable, if it were only possible, for every woman-author to have an outside office where she might work undisturbed. However, woman has a knack of accommodating herself gracefully to circumstances in a way impossible to the average male, and Miss Jewett has acquired the art of working at odd moments, writing on her knee, if necessary and using half-sheets of paper as her favorite medium. She does not use a typewriter, differing in this respect from Miss Wilkins, Miss Fuller and Miss White.
Her favorite working time, when she may choose her working time, is not in the morning, but from immediately after lunch until about six in the afternoon. On occasion she has worked longer spells, from eleven o'clock in the forenoon till late at night. She estimates that her average day's work runs to about 2500 words, though she has written as many as 6000 words in one day. Her plan, which indeed seems to be that of all the authoresses with whom I talked, is to write off the story or sketch at one sitting, so as not to lose the key, as Miss Jewett says; and then to elaborate it and polish it afterward. But as a rule Miss Jewett does not require to alter much. It has sometimes happened to her that she has been able to write off a story at one sitting in so perfect a condition that she could send it to the publishers without even copying it. At other times she has had "to work and delve" at a story for ever so long; but has never been able afterward to detect any difference in the results of the two methods. The easily written story has read just as well, and no better, than the one written with more difficulty. If a sketch gives her a great deal of trouble in the writing, she finds it a good plan, which she recommends to all young writers, to let the work lie by for a time; and then, when she comes to it fresh, and copies it out, it seems to go right of its own accord.
Owing to ill-health, as well as to conflicting duties of various kinds, Miss Jewett has been obliged to content herself hitherto with short literary flights; but looks forward to writing a long novel one of these days. At present her method is to write one or two stories every year for each of the magazines that have been her long established customers--the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner's, the Century, etc.; and then, when a sufficient number of stories have collected themselves, these are finally published in book form. Miss Jewett also expressed much interest in writing for the Youth's Companion, as giving an author almost unrivalled opportunities for carrying his influence into lonely farmhouses and remote village[s] and every corner of the country.
Miss Jewett apparently had not much difficulty in starting upon her literary career. She began writing for the Atlantic Monthly before she was twenty, and has continued to write for it ever since. She maintains that there is little to choose between the excellence of her work then and now--of the technique of the work, that is to say, though the thought may have broadened and deepened.
The characters in her books are rarely portraits, though of course suggestions for her characters have been got here and there from real life. The delightful Mrs. Todd, for instance, is a pure creation.
In the writing of her stories Miss Jewett seems to be led by musical analogies. Besides liking to write her stories at one inspiration, so as not to get "off the key," she also likes to bring her stories back to their keynote at the end, so producing, as she thinks, a more artistic and rounded performance. If her characters start the story standing upon a bridge, for example, or sitting talking before the fire, she leaves them standing on a bridge, or sitting before the fire, at the end of her tale. Also, she like to group her stories together, as a musician groups his sonata-movements--stirring, reflective, lively stories in alternation, like allegros, andantes and finales.
When asked whether she had any favorite among her books, Miss Jewett replied that she thought one felt towards one's own books pretty much as the mother of a family towards her children--the youngest being nearest the heart--and for this reasons she prefers her last book, "The Country of the Pointed Firs."
Her aim in writing she tried to explain to me by referring to a remark of Plato to the effect that the best thing that can be done for the people of a State is to make them acquainted with each other. This seems to her the story-writer's province or great opportunity for usefulness.
She kindly copied for me also a sentence from Flaubert that she has had pinned up as a motto over her desk for years: "Ce n'est pas de faire rire, ni de faire pleurer, ne de vous mettre e fureur ...mais d'agir à la façon de la nature, -- c'est à dire de faire rêver [rever]."
In answer to the question as to whether she devoted much attention [atention] to the subject of style, she said that she had never worried about Style with a big S, but of course had tried by degrees to overcome whatever in her writing she feels to be wrong, little tricks and mannerisms, and so forth. But for the most part she writes unconsciously, and looks upon herself simply "as a penholder." She does not write her stories, but they take possession of her and guide her pen.[']
As the introduction explains, Muirhead interviewed several authors for this piece; however only the introduction and the material related to Jewett are included here.
This text is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME.
[ Back ]
For more on the quotation from Flaubert, see Letters edited by Annie Fields, #94.
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Main Contents & Search