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An Author Speaks (1939 essay)

Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), 24 February 1939, 2.

Editorial Note: When I was putting together volume 1 of my three-volume critical anthology, The L.M. Montgomery Reader—which included essays by Montgomery, interviews with her, and commentary on her work that had appeared between 1908 (the year that Anne of Green Gables was published) and 1944 (two years after her death)—I ended up having to make some difficult decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Montgomery claimed, in a 1929 piece entitled “An Autobiographical Sketch,” to have become “so tired of writing the same old facts over and over,” but although she published numerous iterations of what I ultimately termed “her ‘how I began’ narrative” (Introduction, 8), a comparative reading of these showed that even when she appeared to be telling the same story twice (or more than twice), each version had a unique scope and set of details.

This year, in honour of the anniversary of L.M. Montgomery’s birth 149 years ago and almost ten years to the day since I received my first copy of volume 1 of The L.M. Montgomery Reader, I am pleased to share with you an “outtake” from that book, an essay entitled “An Author Speaks” that to the best of my knowledge has not been reprinted since its appearance in the Dalhousie Gazette in February 1939. It appeared in an issue of this student newspaper that was published by a collective that consisted entirely of women, led by editors Mary Hayman and Barbara Murray, and that was referred to as “the annual Co-ed edition of the Gazette,” according to an editorial commenting on gains and continued roadblocks in terms of gender equity on the Dalhousie campus (“We Have Equality”).

Montgomery’s contribution to this issue, which draws somewhat on her earlier essay “The Way to Make a Book,” published in Everywoman’s World in 1915, opens with an unsigned editor’s note:

We are pleased to present in this issue an editorial which discusses the problems of writing by a person who is excellently qualified to do so—Miss L.M. Montgomery (Mrs. Macdonald). She is one of Dalhousie’s best known women alumnae. Every Canadian girl has read and enjoyed Anne of Green Gables. It is a delightful habit that will continue, a childhood classic that we thank Miss Montgomery for as sincerely as we thank her for sending to us this delightful editorial.

Montgomery’s advice about authenticity, hard work, skill development, and the importance of purpose shows just why her approach to writing, much like her writing itself, continues to be relevant today. (B.L.)


Probably the two questions oftenest asked a writer who has won some measure of success are: “Would you advise me to take up writing as a career?” and “How do you go about writing a book?” The first question is reasonable and sensible. The second is utterly unreasonable and nonsensical. Yet it is the more frequent of the two.

I always answer the first by telling of an old lady I once knew who used to say to girls, “Don’t marry as long as you can help it because when the right man comes along you can’t help it.” So to aspiring young people, “Don’t write if you can help it. Authorship is a hard, exacting profession. But if you are a born writer you won’t be able to help it and advice will have not the least effect on you.”

Before attempting to write a book be sure you have something to say. It need not be a very great or lofty or profound something. It is not given to many of us to utter

“Jewels five words long
That on the stretched forefinger of all time
Sparkle forever.”

But if we have something to say that will bring a whiff of fragrance to a tired soul or a weary heart, or a glint of sunshine to a clouded life, then that something is worth saying and it is our duty to try to say it as well as in us lies.

One should not try to write a book impulsively or accidentally as it were. The idea may come by impulse or accident but it must be worked out with care and skill, or its embodiment will never partake of the essence of true art. Write . . . and put what you have written away: read it over weeks later: cut, prune and re-write. Repeat this process until your work seems to you as good as you can make it. Never mind what outside critics say. They will all differ from each other in their opinions so there is really not a great deal to be learned from them. Be your own severest critic. Never let a paragraph in your work get by you until you are convinced that it is as good as you can make it. Somebody else may be able to improve it vastly. Somebody will be sure to think he can. Never mind. Do your best . . . and do it sincerely. Don’t try to write like some other author. Don’t try to “hit the public taste.” The public taste doesn’t really like being hit. It prefers to be allured into some fresh pasture, surprised with some unexpected tid-bit.

An accusation is commonly made against us novelists that we paint our characters . . . especially our ridiculous or unpleasant characters “from life.” The public seems determined not to allow the smallest particle of creative talent to an author. If you write a book you must have drawn your characters “from life.” You, yourself, are of course the hero or heroine: your unfortunate neighbors supply the other portraits. People will cheerfully tell you that they know this or that character of your books intimately. This will infuriate you at first but you will learn to laugh at it. It is in reality a subtle compliment . . . though it is not meant to be. It is a tribute to the “life-likeness” of your book people.

Write only of the life you know. This is the only safe rule for most of us. A great genius may, by dint of adding study and research to his genius, be able to write of other ages and other environments than his own. But the chances are that you are not a Scott or a Kipling. So stick to what you know. It is not a narrow field. Human life is thick around us everywhere. Tragedy is being enacted in the next yard; comedy is playing across the street. Plot and incident and colouring are ready to our hands. The country lad at his plough can be made just as interesting as a knight in shining armour: the bent old woman we pass on the road may have been as beautiful in her youth as the daughters of Vere de Vere and the cause of as many heart-aches. The darkest tragedy I ever heard of was enacted by people who lived on a backwoods farm: and funnier than anything I ever read was a dialogue between two old fishermen who were gravely discussing a subject of which they knew absolutely nothing. Unless you are living alone on a desert island you can find plenty of material all around you: and even there you could find it in your own heart and soul. For it is surprising how much we all are like other people. Jerome K. Jerome says, “Life tastes just the same whether you drink it out of a stone mug or a golden goblet.” There you are! So don’t make the mistake of trying to furnish your stories with golden goblets when stone mugs are what your characters are accustomed to use. The public isn’t much concerned with your external nothings . . . your mugs or your goblets. What they want is the fresh, spicy brew that Nature pours for us everywhere.

Write, I beseech you, of things cheerful, of things lovely, of things of good report. Don’t write about pig-styes because they are “real.” Rose gardens and pine woods and mountain peaks towering to the stars are just as real and just as plentiful. Write tragedy if you will, for there must be shadow as well as sunlight in any broad presentment of human life: but don’t write of vileness, of filth, of unsavory deeds and thoughts. There is no justification for such writing. The big majority of the reading public doesn’t want it: it serves not one good end.

Don’t spin your book out too long . . . Gone With The Wind to the contrary notwithstanding. Don’t make anybody too bad or too good. Most people are mixed. Don’t make vice attractive and goodness stupid. It’s nearly always the other way in real life. Cultivate a sense of dramatic and humourous values: feel what you write: love your characters and live with them: and KEEP ON TRYING.

Notes

one of Dalhousie’s best known women alumnae: Montgomery completed two semesters of courses in English literature during the 1895–1896 academic year at Dalhousie University, but due to insufficient funding she was unable to complete her degree.

when the right man comes along: Montgomery offered similar advice in an interview with Phoebe Dwight, published in the Boston Traveler in 1910.

“Jewels five words long . . . Sparkle forever”: From The Princess: A Medley (1847), a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

“life-likeness”: I have corrected the original, which reads “like-likeness.”

a Scott or a Kipling: Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), Scottish novelist and poet whose novels included Waverley (1814) and Anne of Geierstein (1829); Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), English poet and novelist whose books included The Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1902). A similar sentence in “The Way to Make a Book” refers to Scott and to James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), American author best known for Last of the Mohicans (1826).

the daughters of Vere de Vere: An allusion to the poem “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” part of The Lady of Shalott, and Other Poems (1842), by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

“Life tastes just the same . . . a golden goblet”: Properly, “Life tastes much the same, whether we quaff it from a golden goblet or drink it out of a stone mug.” From The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886), by Jerome K. Jerome (1859–1927), English writer and humorist.

Gone with the Wind: Novel by Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949), American author, whose first edition ran over one thousand pages; Montgomery read it in 1936, the year it was published (Montgomery, 29 November 1936, in SJLMM, 5: 114). The film adaptation starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh would be released in December 1939, less than a year after the publication of this essay. Incidentally, the actor who had been known as Anne Shirley after playing the lead role in the 1934 film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables had been in serious consideration for the supporting role of Melanie Hamilton, which ultimately was played in the film by Olivia de Havilland (Lefebvre, “What’s in a Name?,” 205).

Bibliography

Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax). “We Have Equality.” 24 February 1939, 2.

Dwight, Phoebe. “Want to Know How to Write Books? Well Here’s a Real Recipe.” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 53–56.

Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screen play by Sidney Howard. Selznick International Pictures, 1939. Internet Movie Database, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/.

Lefebvre, Benjamin. “Introduction: A Life in Print.” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 8.

—, ed. The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 1: A Life in Print. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

—. “What’s in a Name? Toward a Theory of the Anne Brand.” In Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables, edited by Irene Gammel and Benjamin Lefebvre, 192–210. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/gonewithwind0000marg_p5d7/.

Montgomery, L.M. “An Autobiographical Sketch.” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 254–59.

—. The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume 5: 1935–1942. Edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004.

—. “The Way to Make a Book.” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 137–43.

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