Recently, Robert A. Heinlein’s Memorial Lecture he delivered to the Brigade of Midshipmen at his alma mater in April 1973 came to my attention, thanks to a thoughtful friend who sent it my way.
As I have never been greater admirer of science-fiction, Heinlein’s work did not spark my interest. That may have been a mistake, although one easily rectifiable by a visit to a local library.
But what most certainly did ignite my interest were his thoughts on writing. Not only has he spoken frankly about it, but, in a matter of fact way, he dismantled some of the long-established and carefully cultivated myths about writing. Most of which I subscribed to enthusiastically for the best part of my life. The result is rather obvious!
Such as absolute necessity, if not holy duty, of rewriting;
‘A beginner finds hard to believe that no-rewriting rule. A myth has grown up that a manuscript to be suitable for publication must be re-written at least once. Utterly false! Would you refry an egg? Tear down a freshly built wall? Destroy a new chair? Ridiculous! This silly practice of rewriting is based on the hidden assumption that you are smarter today then you were yesterday. But you are not. The efficient way to write, as with any other work, is to do it right the first time! I don’t mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and above all – strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form. Don’t do it!’
Or the one that has grown exponentially in the recent years – classes in ‘creative writing’;
‘That one word is: Don’t! Creativity cannot be taught. One may teach grammar and composition; it is not possible to teach creative writing and any person who claims to do so is a fake. Creative artists are never taught; they invariably teach themselves. You can teach a young artist the tools of his trade; you cannot teach him to create. Nobody taught Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, or Edgar Allan Poe, or Erle Stanley Gardner or Rex Stout – and no one can teach you.’
And lastly the one I held especially dear; that writing is not an ordinary job, or a
job at all for that matter, but a calling of a highest order, almost sacred duty known only to those called upon. Then I read this;
‘I did not become a writer to see my name in print; I didn’t give a hoot about that and had no literary ambitions. I was a naval officer by choice; I become a writer by economic necessity. I needed to pay off a mortgage and started writing to earn the money. I was in a poor health and could not handle a steady job – nor were there any jobs.’
He then proceeds to list those who were forced into writing careers by either; their ill health, or utter un-employability, or both, and become successful writers; H.G.Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Cyrano de Bergerac, and many others.
While the whole piece is truly brilliant as, apart from writing, Heinlein also speaks about science fiction as ‘realistic fiction’ and about those things in life he considered to be most important (‘spelled out in simple Anglo-Saxon words “patriotism” reads “Women and children first!”), he leaves us with seemingly simple Five Rules for Success in Writing:
- You must write,
- You must finish what you write,
- You must refrain from re-writing except to editorial order,
- You must place it on the market,
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
‘That’s all. That’s a sure-fire formula for getting anything – anything at all! – published. But so seldom does anyone follow all five rules that the profession of writing is a soft touch for those who do – even though most professional writers are not too bright, not too wise, not too creative. For these rules work in series, not in parallel. If you bilge any one of them, you bilge completely and your writing will not be published.’