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Two Looks At Writing:
From Writer’s Block to ‘Word Factory’

Stefan Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Clare Hall. His book Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics captured my imagination. In a series of essays he explores aspects of the literary and intellectual culture of Britain from the early twentieth century to the present. His first two essays, “On Not Getting on with it: The Criticism of Cyril Connolly” and “Rolling it out: V.S. Pritchett‘s Writing Life,” seemed to me to represent two very different ends of the writing spectrum. Some writers openly admit that writing is arduous for them, like Cyril Connolly. Others like V.S. Pritchett make the rest of us jealous by setting up a productive routine that works for them day in and day out. Below is a short excerpt from each of these essays. Let us know in the comments what kind of writer you are.

“On Not Getting on With it”

When Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise was published in 1938, W.H. Auden sent its author an admiring letter:

As both Eliot and Edmund Wilson are Americans, I think Enemies of Promise is the best English book of criticism since the war, and more than Eliot or Wilson you really write about writing in the only way which is interesting to anyone except academics, as a real occupation like banking or fucking, with all its attendant boredom, excitement, and terror.

The word that catches the eye here is, of course, ‘banking’.  It is typical of Auden’s off-hand daringness to suggest that the experience of writing might in some way measure of to the ‘excitement and terror’ of banking.  Connolly no doubt appreciated both the compliment and the collusion, the acknowledgment from a fellow-writer that he accurately characterized the ‘real occupation’ that they shared.  In fact, Auden’s comment had a wider application to Connolly’s career as a whole, for what, above all, Connolly did was to ‘write about writing’.  That is, he wrote about the literary life as much as about literature; he wrote, with an empathy fed by constantly renewed experience, about the activity of writing, and, famously, about the much more common activity of not writing, the source of so much of the boredom and the terror.  Perhaps no other author has written so much or so well about not writing.  Drawing on the deep wells of his own disappointment and self-reproach, he turned himself into the laureate of literary sloth, the chronicler of time wasted, the learned anatomist of the obstacles to getting down to it.

Enemies of Promise itself is an inventory of the pitfalls that may all too easily prevent the writer from doing the one thing that matters, writing a book that will last.  Several of the headings of this inventory have passed into the vocabulary of modern literary culture – ‘the pram in the hall’, ‘the charlock’s shade’ -as has the parable of the seduction of the promising young author, Walter Savage Shelleyblake, into the drudgery of regular reviewing.  It is, not altogether paradoxically, the book of Connolly’s that has lasted best.  But for someone who turned habitual failure into a positive career move, Connolly actually wrote a great deal else as well…

“Rolling it Out”

It was all done with a pastry board and a bulldog clip. Sheets of paper were clipped to the board, the board rested on the arms of his chair, and the fountain pen began to cover the pages with a scrawl that barely hinted at imitations of legibility. Every day was the same, weekday or weekend: a long morning at the board, lunch, a nap, errands, tea, and then back to the board; a drink or two before dinner, perhaps some more reading after, and then earl bed in preparation for another day of turning the doughy ball of thought into light, crisp sentences. The secret of happiness, it has been said, is to develop habits whose repetition we find enjoyable and whose outcomes we find satisfying. For the greater part of his very long adult life, Victor Sawdon Pritchett seems to have been a happy man.

Pritchett’s son, Oliver, later recalled that he and his sister grew up ‘in a word factory’. ‘The handwritten pages, covered in revisions, crossings out, second and third thoughts, and sideways writing in the margins, were given to my mother to type. They would be revised and typed again and again.’ Transposing the usual location of domestic equipment, the Pritchetts lived out a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs version of the literary life: he, upstairs, rolling out the sentences on the pastry board; she, downstairs, pounding, turning the scrawl into copy for the printers, stopping only to prepare the traditional cooked lunch and substantial dinner that marked the end of the day’s two shifts. Given Pritchett’s reliance on his wife’s unpaid labour, and indeed his rather traditional views of women’s role more generally…, there seemed a momentary plausibility to a line the proof copy of Jeremy Treglown’s biography, alas properly corrected in the published version, which had him setting the pastry board, ‘across the comfortable arms of his char’.

‘Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.’ Thus Pritchett, writing on Gibbon in 1941, in the essay that now stands at the head of his 1,300-page Complete Essays. He didn’t really mean that it was depressing, of course: that’s just the note of the twinkly-eyed collusion with his readers’ all-too human weaknesses that graces so many of his essays. Beneath the surface, a more strenuous moral is silently making itself felt, suggesting that his familiar fact is actually sobering or bracing, a reminder to Pritchett to keep himself up to the mark. The last essay in that volume, on Virginia Woolf, written over forty years later, ovserves almost as an aside: ‘She worked harder than ever when she was famous, as gifted writers do-what else is there to do but write?’ That rhetorical question may at first reading seem to strike a bleak note, as though all else had lost its savour, but in context it gestures more towards an inner imperative, that achieved condition of the writer, whether critic or novelist, in which experience is not fully possessed as experience until it has been cropped, shaped, and coloured. Pritchett wrote so well about authors as different as Gibbon and Woolf in part because he, too, knew the compulsions and desperations of the form of willing slavery that is the writer’s life…

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  5. anubhav

    i am from india and have a real problem in word pronounciation…. can you give me any idea of such book that would help me in this…

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