An advocate for the disabled and a champion of women's suffrage and the rights of workers, Helen Keller (1880-1968) was also a prolific author. Though blind and deaf from the age of two, she wrote over 50,000 letters in addition to a dozen books and countless articles.
Under the title "How to Become a Writer," the following "letter from Miss Helen Keller to a blind boy" originally appeared in the magazine The World's Work in April 1910. Consider in particular Keller's observation that "No one can be taught to write," yet one "can learn to write if he has it in him."
Your letter interested me very much, and I would gladly tell you how to become a writer if I knew. But alas! I do not know how to become one myself. No one can be taught to write. One can learn to write if he has it in him; but he does not learn from a teacher, counselor, or adviser. No education, however careful and wise, will furnish talent. It only gives material to one who has talent to work with. If I could explain the process and command the secrets of this strange, elusive faculty, the first thing I should do would be to write the greatest novel of the century, an epic and a volume of sonnets thrown in. I should at once set about making great writers of some hundreds and thousands of Americans. I should "stump" the States and get bills passed for the promotion of high-grade literature. I should see to it that among our national products authors with noble powers had the chief place.
I believe the only place to look for the information you desire is in the biographies of successful authors. As far as I know, one fact is common to them all. In their youth they read good books and began writing in a simple way. They kept the best models of style before them. They played with words until they could criticize their own compositions and strike out dull or badly managed passages. They journeyed on, now taking a step forward, impelled by the desire to write, now at a standstill, held back by defects of style or lack of ideas. One day they wrote a real book, they awoke to find that they had a literary gift--the idea had come, and they were prepared to express it! I would suggest that you read the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Anthony Trollope. In these books the authors tell us, not how they learned to write--that was a thing not in their power to divulge--but what steps they took to improve their powers. And simple steps they are, such as you and I can follow.
You see, there is but one road to authorship. It remains forever a way in which each man must go a-pioneering. The struggles of the pen may be as severe as those of the axe and hammer. One needs right mental eyes to discern the signs of talent which writers have left on their pages, like so many "blazes" upon trees in the forest. Well! I am not a novelist or a poet, I fear, and that metaphor is running away with me. What I mean is, we can follow where literary folks have gone; but, in order to be authors ourselves, to be followed, we must strike into a path where no one has preceded us. Before we publish anything, or set ourselves up as writers, we may imitate, and even copy, to our hearts' content, and when the time comes for us to send forth a message to the world, we shall have learned how to say it.
From your letter I judge that you do not read with your fingers. You can do this, and you ought to learn as soon as possible. You are indeed fortunate that your parents can read aloud to you. But there is danger in only hearing language, and never seeing or touching it. Your memory will do you all the more service if you have embossed words placed at your finger-ends. Then reading by yourself will give you a better sense of language; and a good sense of words is the very basis of style.
(Helen Keller, Out Of The Dark: Essays, Letters, And Addresses On Physical And Social Vision. Doubleday, 1913)
More Writers on Writing:
- Can Writing Be Taught?
- Writers on Writing: The Myth of Inspiration
- Advice From One Writer to Another
Image: bronze statue of Helen Keller in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.