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Max Perkins' Advice to a Young Writer

"Writing . . . can only be done by those who have eyes and ears"


Max Perkins' Advice to a Young Writer

Maxwell E. Perkins (1884-1947)

The next time you run into problems with a writing project, imagine the sort of help a great editor might provide:

Max Perkins . . . was famous for his ability to inspire an author to produce the best that was in him or her. More a friend to his authors than a taskmaster, he aided them in every way. He helped them structure their books, if help was needed; thought up titles, invented plots; he served as psychoanalyst, lovelorn adviser, marriage counselor, career manager, money-lender. Few editors before him had done so much work on manuscripts, yet he was always faithful to his credo, "The book belongs to the author."
(A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. E.P. Dutton, 1978)
From 1910 until his death in 1947, Scribner's legendary editor Maxwell Perkins nurtured and inspired such notable authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Rawlings, Ring Lardner, and Thomas Wolfe.

Yet somehow, even near the end of his life, Perkins found time to counsel would-be writers as well. In May 1945, he responded to a young serviceman who had sought his advice about a writing career:

I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself. It is good journalistic writing that is done quickly while everything is still new, but not the best writing. . . .

As to perhaps a couple years of college, I should think that might be of great advantage, in a general sense, but don't try to learn about writing there. Learn something else. Learn about writing from reading. That is the right way to do it. But then it can only be done by those who have eyes and ears, by seeing and listening. . . .

[T]he way they teach literature and writing in college is harmful. It results in one getting into the habit of seeing everything through a kind of film of past literature, and not seeing it directly with one's own senses. . . .

I would say that a couple of years in the newspaper business was much better for one who wanted to be a writer than a couple of years in college. But there are, of course, other advantages that come from the college.
(Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979)
Perkins, of course, was writing in a different era--years before the proliferation of creative writing programs and the decline of the newspaper industry. Yet the heart of his message still rings true.

In a letter to another hopeful young author, Perkins said, "What really makes writing is done in the head, where impressions are stored up, and it is done with the eye and the ear. The agony comes later, when it has to be done with the hand, and that part of it can gain greatly from seeing how others do it, by reading."

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