1. Education

Robert Louis Stevenson on Writing

"Try to use your faults . . . and don't run your head against stone walls"


Robert Louis Stevenson on Writing

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson's "golden gift of words can never be denied," noted G.K. Chesterton in 1906: "He may sometimes have been too 'precious,' but the power of writing as he could write is so uncommon that he must always stand with a very few."

As it turned out, for most of the 20th century, Stevenson was left standing pretty much by himself in the youth section of the library.

Until recently, the author of such famous adventure tales and dark fables as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was dismissed by most critics as a "mere" storyteller and crafty stylist. In 1994, one huffy literary historian wrote that Stevenson "is a man generally unread today by serious students of literature."

Yet in that same year, the centennial of Stevenson's death at age 44, his reputation on the literary stock market ticked upward with the publication of several critical reassessments. Once again he was viewed in the company of his contemporaries--Joseph Conrad and Henry James, in particular--and Stevenson's essays and travel books led to his rediscovery as an important writer of creative nonfiction.

But then again, literary reputation matters little to real readers--"the rare kind who have a genuine enthusiasm for the author's work," as one of Stevenson's reviewers put it in 1886.

What matters is that Stevenson wrote well, and as demonstrated by these excerpts from letters and essays, he also had some wise things to say about the art and craft of writing.

  • Learning to Write
    Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. . . .

    That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. . . . Perhaps I hear some one cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality.
    ("A College Magazine." Memories and Portraits, 1887)

  • Writing Without Effort
    When truth flows from a man, fittingly clothed in style and without conscious effort, it is because the effort has been made and the work practically completed before he sat down to write. It is only out of fulness of thinking that expression drops perfect like a ripe fruit; and when Thoreau wrote so nonchalantly at his desk, it was because he had been vigorously active during his walk. For neither clearness, compression, nor beauty of language, come to any living creature till after a busy and a prolonged acquaintance with the subject on hand. Easy writers are those who, like Walter Scott, choose to remain contented with a less degree of perfection than is legitimately within the compass of their powers.
    ("Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions." Eclectic Magazine, September 1880)

  • Remembering to Write
    I cannot describe a thing that is before me at the moment, or that has been before me only a very little while before; I must allow my recollections to get thoroughly strained free from all chaff till nothing be except the pure gold; allow my memory to choose out what is truly memorable by a process of natural selection; and I piously believe that in this way I ensure the Survival of the Fittest.
    ("Cockermouth and Keswick--A Fragment," 1871)

  • Letting it Cook
    I used to write as slow as judgment; now I write rather fast; but I am still "a slow study," and sit a long while silent on my eggs. Unconscious thought, there is the only method: macerate your subject, let it boil slow, then take the lid off and look in--and there your stuff is, good or bad.
    (Letter to W. Craibe Angus, November 1891)

  • Weaving Sentences
    [T]he true business of the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself. In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. . . . Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously prepared, and hastily and weakly finished. Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness.
    ("On Style in Literature: Its Technical Elements." Contemporary Review, April 1885)

  • Using Your Faults
    See the good in other people's work; it will never be yours. See the bad in your own, and don't cry about it; it will be there always. Try to use your faults; at any rate use your knowledge of them, and don't run your head against stone walls.
    (Letter to Trevor Haddon, a young painter, July 5, 1883)

  • Rewriting
    As for my damned literature, God knows what a business it is, grinding along without a scrap of inspiration or a note of style. But it has to be ground, and the mill grinds exceeding slowly though not particularly small. The last two chapters have taken me considerably over a month, and they are still beneath pity. This I cannot continue, time not sufficing; and the next will just have to be worse. All the good I can express is just this; some day, when style revisits me, they will be excellent matter to rewrite. Of course, my old cure of a change of work would probably answer, but I cannot take it now. The treadmill turns; and with a kind of desperate cheerfulness, I mount the idle stair.
    (Letter to Sidney Colvin, March 1891)

For the full series of articles in which classic and contemporary authors discuss the writing process, see Writers on Writing: Advice From the Pros.

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