As I was enjoying a short story by Louisa May Alcott, I found spirited conversations among the characters about reading and writing. I seriously doubt that it was the author’s intention to pass along writing tips in her story, but I got a kick out of the subtle wisdom and commentaries on the writing life included in the dialogue!
No doubt many fiction writers have received responses similar to the ones below, even from well-meaning non-authors. And maybe there’s some truth in them! You decide…
A little background to the story: Sophie’s aunt had invited her to visit for several weeks in “the wilds of Vermont”, and Sophie in turn invites some of her city friends to join her during the holiday. The friends arrive and meet Saul, who works on the farm. They invite him to share his war experiences with Randal, one of their friends from the city…
* * * *
It took you how long to write your novel?!
Saul responds politely to their request. “When I’ve foddered the cattle and done my chores I’d be pleased to. What regiment were you in?” asked Saul.
Randal replied, “In none. I was abroad at the time.”
“No, busy with a novel.”
“Took four years to write it?”
“I was obliged to travel and study before I could finish it. These things take more time to work up than outsiders would believe.”
“Seems to me our war was a finer story than any you could find in Europe, and the best way to study it would be to fight it out. If you want heroes and heroines you’d have found plenty of ’em there.”
A pleasant surprise, and appreciation for novels
“Tell us about your book, we have been reading it as it comes out in the magazine, and are much exercised about how it’s going to end,” began Saul.
“Do you really read my poor serial up here, and do me the honor to like it?” asked the novelist, both flattered and amused, for his work was of the aesthetic sort, microscopic studies of character, and careful pictures of modern life.
“Sakes alive, why shouldn’t we?” cried Aunt Plumy. [For Aunt Plumy I translate from the colloquial] “We have some education…a town library…magazines…Our winter is long and evenings would be kind of lonesome if we didn’t have novels and newspapers to cheer ’em up.”
Randal replies, “I am very glad I can help to beguile them for you. Now tell me what you honestly think of my work? Criticism is always valuable, and I should really like yours, Mrs. Basset,” said Randal, wondering what the good woman would make of the delicate analysis and worldly wisdom on which he prided himself.
“Criticism is always valuable to an author”… unless…
Aunt Plumy…rather enjoyed freeing her mind at all times, and decidedly resented the insinuation that country folk could not appreciate light literature as well as city people. “I’m not a great judge…but it really does seem as if some of your men and women are dreadfully uncomfortable creatures.
It seems to me it isn’t wise to be always picking ourselves to pieces and prying into things that ought to come gradually by way of experience and the visitations of Providence. Flowers won’t bloom…if you pull them open. It’s better to wait and see what they can do alone.”
Aunt Plumy continued. “I do feel as if books would be more sustaining if they were full of every-day people and things, like good bread and butter. The books that go to the heart and aren’t soon forgotten are the kind I like. Miss Terry’s books*, now, and Miss Stowe’s, and Dickens’s Christmas pieces, they are real sweet and cheering, to my mind.”
Randal… was quite composed and laughed good-naturedly, though secretly feeling as if a pail of cold water had been poured over him.
[* Just a short note, Miss [Harriet Beecher] Stowe and Dickens we’ve heard of, but I was curious about who “Miss Terry” could be. I believe she could have been the author Rose Terry Cook (1827-1892) who lived in Connecticut, the next-door state to where Alcott lived. And Cook was related to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who Alcott’s parents knew.]
Differing opinions about making a living
Randal responds, “Many thanks, madam; you have discovered my weak point with surprising accuracy. But you see I cannot help ‘picking folks to pieces,’ as you have expressed it; that is my gift, and it has its attractions, as the sale of my books will testify. People like the ‘spice-bread,’ and as that is the only sort my oven will bake, I must keep on in order to make my living.”
Aunt Plumy adds, “So rum-sellers say, but it ain’t a good trade to follow, and I’d chop wood before I’d earn my living harming my fellow man.
I’d let my oven cool a spell, and hunt up some homely, happy folks to write about; folks that don’t borrow trouble and go looking for holes in their neighbors’ coats, but take their lives brave and cheerful; and remembering we are all human, have pity on the weak, and try to be as full of mercy, patience and loving kindness as Him who made us.
That sort of a book would do a heap of good; be real warming and strengthening and make them that read it love the man that wrote it, and remember him when he was dead and gone.”
A frustrated author, realizes he’s not writing what he wants to write
“I wish I could!” and Randal meant what he said, for he was as tired of his own style as a watch-maker might be of the magnifying glass through which he strains his eyes all day. He knew that the heart was left out of his work, and that both mind and soul were growing morbid with dwelling on the faulty, absurd and metaphysical phases of life and character.
He often threw down his pen and vowed he would write no more; but he loved ease and the books brought money readily; he was accustomed to the stimulant of praise and missed it as the toper [drinker] misses his wine, so that which had once been a pleasure to himself and others was fast becoming a burden and a disappointment.
The joy of unexpected support
The brief pause which followed his involuntary betrayal of discontent was broken by Ruth, who exclaimed, with a girlish enthusiasm that overpowered girlish bashfulness, “I think all the novels are splendid! I hope you will write hundreds more, and I shall live to read ’em.”
“Bravo, my gentle champion! I promise that I will write one more at least, and have a heroine in it whom your mother will both admire and love,” answered Randal, surprised to find how grateful he was for the girl’s approval, and how rapidly his trained fancy began to paint the background on which he hoped to copy this fresh, human daisy.
Saul brought the conversation back to its starting point by saying in a tone of the most sincere interest, “Speaking of the serial, I am very anxious to know how your hero comes out. He is a fine fellow, and I can’t decide whether he is going to spoil his life marrying that silly woman, or do something grand and generous, and not be made a fool of.”
How does an author know how to end the story?
“Upon my soul,” Randal said, “I don’t know myself. It is very hard to find new finales. Can’t you suggest something, Major? Then I shall not be obliged to leave my story without an end, as people complain I am rather fond of doing.”
“Well, no, I don’t think I’ve anything to offer. Seems to me it isn’t the sensational exploits that show the hero best, but some great sacrifice quietly made by a common sort of man who is noble without knowing it. I saw a good many such during the war, and often wish I could write them down, for it is surprising how much courage, goodness and real piety is stowed away in common folks ready to show when the right time comes.”
“Tell us one of them, and I’ll bless you for a hint. No one knows the anguish of an author’s spirit when he can’t ring down the curtain on an effective tableau,” said Randal.
* * * *
Thank you, Miss Alcott, for sharing your wisdom in such an entertaining way!
Was that helpful or inspiring? I hope if nothing else, you got a chuckle!
My favorite lines:
Now tell me honestly what you think of my work.
…Flowers won’t bloom if you pull them open.
…That sort of a book would do a heap of good; be real warming and strengthening.
People like the ‘spice-bread,’ and …that is the only sort my oven will bake…
He often threw down his pen and vowed he would write no more.Louisa May Alcott’s characters
If you care to read the whole short story, you can find the pdf online by going here to find Alcott’s short stories, then search for “A Country Christmas”.
I was also interested to find a letter that Louisa May Alcott wrote to a fan who asked for her advice on achieving success.
And here, a blogger gleans writing lessons from Louisa May Alcott’s journal, along with secrets to her success.
Happy writing! And happy reading!
Thank you awesome photographers! Image credits:
Winter country painting: George Henry Durrie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,
Writing Photo by Negative Space at Pexels