From the Mind and Pen of Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was a boy, my father read Treasure Island to me. I think I’d already got a taste for the awesomeness of pirates – photographic evidence of a bouncy castle party when I was either five or six suggests that – but Treasure Island didn’t just push the door open, it battered it down and ran in to ransack the joint, much like Blind Pew’s crew in the Admiral Benbow inn. I needn’t delve into Stevenson’s immense contribution to pirate mythology and literature here. Let’s just say that the book has left its mark on me, to the point that I rank directing a stage version of the play (and appearing in it, getting killed four times a night) as one of my life’s ambitions ticked off.

A few years later I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This was a ship of a different sail; a darker sail, though one that I only appreciated upon re-reading it again later in life. But as a piece of creepy Victorian horror, it deserves its place in the pantheon of books that made a great impression on the world.

Apart from that, I haven’t actually read any of Stevenson’s other books (though on familiarising myself with his catalogue, I’ll get round to doing so – looking forward to The Black Arrow and The Master of Ballantrae in particular). Until, that is, I found a collection of essays by Stevenson on the subject of writing for free download on Amazon.

It’s a short book, though quite dense in the subjects it covers, and gave me some food for thought. For this (overdue) blog, I thought I’d share some of his thoughts. (Quotes are copies as written, so apologies for the use of the male pronoun, etc)

“Every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import.”

“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.”

As a self-confessed fan of audiobooks, I’m getting into the habit of reading my stuff out loud to myself. This is a great way to catch slips and typos, but it also gives you an insight into what sounds – and therefore, probably reads – good.

“He went into it (the writing profession), I shall venture to say, if not with any noble design, at least with the ardour of a first love; and he enjoyed its practice long before he paused to calculate its wage.”

“A writer can live by his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner at night.”

How many times have you got to the end of a story, or just had a good day at writing, and felt on top of the world? Beats a lot of things, right? I’ve noticed that – unlike theatre, for example – there’s not such a big come-down the following day – because you can carry on! It just keeps on going…

“To treat all subjects in the highest, the most honourable, and the pluckiest spirit, consistent with the fact, is the first duty of a writer.”

“There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in the treatment.”

“So that the first duty of a man who is to write is intellectual. Designedly or not, he has so far set himself up for a leader of the minds of men; and he must see that his own mind is kept supple, charitable, and bright. Everything but prejudice should find a voice through him; he should see the good in all things; where he has even a fear hat he does not wholly understand, there he should be wholly silent; and he should recognise from the first that he has only one tool in his workshop, and that tool is sympathy.”

“There is no book perfect, even in design; but there are many that will delight, improve, or encourage the reader.”

Chasing perfection is always the goal, even if it’s a goal we can’t attain. Play the game for the game’s sake. Have I done my best? If so, that’s game over – until the next game starts.

“The writer has the chance to stumble, by the way, on something pleasing, something interesting, something encouraging, were it only to a single reader.”

“In literature, as in conduct, you can never hope to do exactly right. All you can do is to make as sure as possible; and for that there is but one rule. Nothing can be done in a hurry that can be done slowly.”

“And for a last word: in all narration there is only one way to be clever, and that is to be exact. To be vivid is a secondary quality which must presuppose the first; for vividly to convey a wrong impression is only to make failure conspicuous.”

There’s a lot more, and it’s all worth a read (and when it’s free, why not?). Hopefully this has whetted your appetite.


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