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James Thurber on Writing and Editing

"If you are a writer you write"

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James Thurber on Writing and Editing

James Thurber (1894-1961)

Best known for his short stories "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat," James Thurber spent most of his career drawing cartoons and writing essays and stories for The New Yorker magazine. He published more than 40 books, including four children's books, two collections of fables, and a humorous memoir, My Life and Hard Times (1933).

As the result of a childhood accident, Thurber was almost entirely blind. And despite his reputation as a humorist, his view of life was pessimistic, sometimes despairing. He once said to film director Elliott Nugent, a lifelong friend, "I can't hide any more behind the mask of comedy that I've used all my life. People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible--and so is life."

Thurber once said that he wrote because he had to write--it was all that he knew how to do. And his advice to would-be writers came in the form of an abrupt challenge: "If you are a writer you write."

Here are some further observations from James Thurber on reading, writing, and editing.

Getting Started

  • I admire the person who can write it right off. Mencken once said that a person who thinks clearly can write well. But I don't think clearly--too many thoughts bump into one another. Trains of thought run on a track of the Central Nervous System--the New York Central Nervous System, to make it worse.
    ("Thurber," Life magazine, March 14, 1960)


  • [A first draft is] just for size. That draft isn't any good; it isn't supposed to be; the whole purpose is to sketch out proportions. . . . I rarely have a very clear idea of where I'm going when I start. Just people and a situation. Then I fool around--writing and re-writing until the stuff gels.
    (Interview with Robert Van Gelder. The New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1940)


  • I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, "Damnit, Thurber, stop writing." She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, "Is he sick?" "No," my wife says, "he's writing something."
    (Interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele. Paris Review, Fall 1955)

Writing and Rewriting

  • I have never written more than a dozen pieces that I thought could not have been improved. Most writers who are any good have this belief about their work.
    ("The Theory and Practice of Criticizing the Criticism of the Editing of New Yorker Articles, May 18, 1959. Published in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1988)


  • For a writer in his middle years, who has learned to write slowly and not too often, who sometimes puts a piece by for a year or two because he doesn't have the slightest idea what to say on page three, and has no desire to say it even if he could think of it, it is not the easiest thing in the world to have someone whirl around and say, "Give me a new line for Joe right here." 'Hm?" says the middle-aged writer. "You don't mean today, do you?"
    ("Roaming in the Gloaming," The New York Times, January 7, 1940)

Thurber's Reading List

In May 1949 Thurber sent his daughter, Rosie, off to college with a "list of some 20 books, most of them under 90,000 words, all of them beautifully written." Later he said, "What I hoped this shelf would prove is that reading can be fun, that modern writing can be good, and that good writing can be exciting." Here is Thurber's reading list.

  • Babbit, Sinclair Lewis

  • Daisy Miller, Henry James

  • Gentle Julia, Booth Tarkington

  • Linda Condon, Java Head, Wild Oranges, Joseph Hergesheimer

  • The Wanderer, Alain-Fournier

  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

  • Invitation to the Waltz, Rosamond Lehmann

  • This Simian World, God and My Father, Clarence Day

  • The House in Paris, Elizabeth Bowen

  • A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather

  • A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

  • Heaven's My Destination, the Cabala, Thornton Wilder

  • February Hill, The Wind at My Back, Victoria Lincoln

  • Blue Voyage, Conrad Aiken

  • The Bitter Tea of General Yen, G.Z. Stone

  • Lady into Fox, Edward Garnett

  • How to Write Short Stories, Ring Lardner

  • The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West

  • Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West

Editors and Editing

  • When [New Yorker editor Harold Ross] worked on a manuscript or proof, he was surrounded by dictionaries, which he constantly consulted, along with one of his favorite books, Fowler's Modern English Usage. He learned more grammar and syntax from Fowler than he had ever picked up in his somewhat sketchy school days. He read the Oxford English Dictionary the way other men read fiction, and he sometimes delved into a volume of the Britannica at random. One of the funniest moments in Wolcott Gibbs's Season in the Sun showed the actor who played Ross calmly looking up the word "hurricane" in Webster's Unabridged while the advance gales of a real hurricane swept toward him like a cavalry charge.
    (The Years with Ross, Little, Brown and Company, 1959)


  • Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, "How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?" and avoid "How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?"
    ("The Theory and Practice of Criticizing the Criticism of the Editing of New Yorker Articles, May 18, 1959. Published in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1988)

Last Words on the Future of Prose

  • The written word will soon disappear and we'll no longer be able to read good prose like we used to could. This prospect does not gentle my thoughts or tranquil me toward the future.
    (Letter to Judson Irish, August 15, 1959)

Sources:

  • Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, Michael J. Rosen, editor (Harper & Row, 1989)
  • Selected Letters of James Thurber, Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks, editors (Little, Brown and Company, 1980)
  • The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber (Harper & Brothers, 1945)
  • The Years with Ross, James Thurber (Little, Brown and Company, 1959)
  • "The Years with Thurber," Robert Gottlieb, The New Yorker, September 3, 2003.

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