The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Inborn Talent

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Inborn Talent



It is always helpful, in writings possessing even the mildest of text-book flavour, for author and reader to start with a clear mutual understanding of scope and purpose. The best way in which to forestall that aggrieved sense which a student often feels of having derived no profit from a certain book or article or lecture course, is to say frankly, at the outset: "Here, in brief, is what we intend to do. If your individual case falls outside these limits, you will waste your time, since it belongs upon the list of what we have no intention of doing."

In the present volume of papers on The Craftsmanship of Writing, the best and quickest way to reach this helpful understanding is to explain what first suggested them, and what results it is hoped that they will achieve. There has probably never been a time when so large a number of men and women, of all sorts and conditions, have yielded to the lure of authorship—and the elemental, naive and random questions that they often ask shows that there has never been a time when so many were in need of a word of friendly guidance. And this is precisely what the present volume claims to give. It does not pretend to point a royal road to literature—to furnish a new philosopher's stone for transmuting ordinary citizens into famous poets and novelists. It has no ambition to create new authors—since authors worthy of the name are born, not made nor to compete with the efforts of our college English Departments, our summer lecture courses, our correspondence schools and literary agencies—for we have a surfeit of these already. The aim of The Craftsmanship of Writing is nothing more pretentious than to help would-be writers to reach a somewhat saner, more logical understanding of the real nature of the profession they are entering upon, both on its technical and its artistic side; to discount its delays and disappointments; and above all, to learn to help themselves by intelligent self-criticism. For it is a somewhat curious fact that there is no other line of intellectual work in which a man or a woman may remain, through months and years, so fundamentally ignorant of his or her real worth.

Now the reason why a struggling author may waste years of misdirected effort, without knowing just how good or bad his productions really are, is not difficult to explain. The sources of any workman's knowledge of his worth are practically only three in number: the market value of his ware; his own self-criticism, and the opinions of others. Now it is a common experience among young authors to find through weary months that their wares apparently have no market value at all—this does away with the first source of knowledge. Secondly, the ability to criticise one's self in a detached, impartial way is one of the rarest of human faculties—and not a bit less rare in authors than in other people. Yet, unfortunately, it is upon his own judgment that every young writer must very largely depend. For there is probably no other craft or employment in which it is so difficult to obtain a really authoritative opinion—for the excellent reason that in no other craft or employment is there such a lack of any general requirement, any standard of apprenticeship. Indeed, it is often as hard to guess the potential powers of a beginner in letters as to predict how a raw recruit is likely to conduct himself under fire. Let us, therefore, take up separately these two questions: First, the various kinds of critical opinion a young author is able to obtain upon his writings; secondly, the nature and degree of systematic training it is possible for him to acquire.

But first let us ask one more preliminary detail: where does the raw recruit in the army of authorship mainly come from? In other trades and professions there is some sort of selective barrier: a college degree, a regent's certificate, a Civil Service examination, a Union Membership, some sort of initial guarantee of fitness. Then, too, in many cases, there is the prohibitive question of expense. It costs both time and money to become a lawyer or physician—even to go upon the stage means nowadays a year or two in a dramatic school, if one does not want to start with a handicap. In contrast writing seems so simple; pen and ink, a pad of paper, a table in a quiet corner—these to the uninitiated seem to be the net amount of required capital. Frank Norris, in a burst of rather curious optimism, once wrote, "The would-be novel writer may determine between breakfast and dinner to essay the plunge, buy (for a few cents) ink and paper between dinner and supper, and have the novel under way before bedtime. How much of an outlay does his first marketable novel represent? Practically nothing." Mr. Norris seems for the moment to have forgotten that his own first "marketable novel," McTeague (although published subsequently to Moran of the Lady Letty), represented careful labour scattered over a period of four years, and that a portion of it at least necessitated quite literally a further delay than that of ink and paper, being submitted in part fulfillment of the requirements of a course at Harvard University. La Bruyère came considerably nearer the truth when he cynically wrote, from a different angle:

A man starts upon a sudden, takes Pen, Ink and Paper, and without ever having had a thought of it before, resolves within himself to write a Book; he has no Talent at writing, but he wants fifty Guineas.

Now, as in every other attempt to obtain a high rate of interest upon a small investment, the results are extremely precarious. The difference in this particular case of the beginner in literature is that the fault lies less with the investment than with the investor. Out of a hundred beginners, taken at random, no two have had the same sort or degree of training, the same advantages of worldly knowledge, the same allotment of that special fitness which it is convenient to speak of as the Inborn Talent. And it would be most extraordinary if all of them, or any considerable portion of them should have. The field is open to all comers, without prejudice of colour, sex or age. And so we find competing side by side, the university man, with half a dozen letters after his name; the young woman from some Western farm, who thinks herself a second Mrs. Browning; the underpaid teacher, the starveling minister, the physician with a dwindling practice, who seek to eke out a meagre income with an occasional magazine article; the society woman and the man of leisure whose whim it is to see themselves in print; the suffragette, the sweet girl graduate, the whole motley host that, rightly or wrongly, believe themselves to have the Inborn Talent. Now, if these new writers seek advice—and sooner or later they practically all of them do—from whom can they seek it? What avenues are open to them?

Some writers, of course, are more fortunately placed than others, in this respect; but in practice it will be found that the usual sources of criticism, whether favourable or hostile, narrow down to four: I. The biassed opinions of interested friends; II. The bought opinions of professional advisers; III. The rejections or acceptances of editors, either with or without comment; IV. The published criticisms in the review departments of newspapers and magazines. Now, as already said, there is a certain degree of luck in all four of these sources of criticism. Thus, to take them up in order, the opinions of the first class may not always be biassed. A young author may have the good luck to number among his friends or relatives one or more authors of big accomplishment and fine discernment who may serve the place of literary godfather, and who in rare and wonderful instances, such as that of Flaubert and Maupassant, actualise that ideal form of apprenticeship which all the arts enjoy save only that of letters. Again, it sometimes happens that a beginner is fortunate enough to choose for his adviser a professional reader whose horizon happens to be wider than that of the mere market value of literary ware, and whose suggestions stimulate the growth of his mentality as well as of his bank account. And then again, there are editors, who, in spite of the burden they carry, are not always too busy to send, with a rejected manuscript, a line or two of welcome advice to a young author whom they see to be stumbling needlessly—or a few words of equally valued praise to the beginner whose first work shows, through all its crudeness, the unmistakable gleam of the Inborn Talent. And as to the fourth class, that of the professional critic, there are a good many successful authors who freely admit the debt they owe to him for many a frank word of praise or censure in earlier years. Indeed, this last source of outside help ought to be the most disinterested and the most useful of them all. That it is not, is due to two simple and rather obvious facts: first, that it cannot possibly reach the novice in letters until he begins to get his writings into print; secondly, that the rank and file of reviewers think it their duty to speak to the readers of books rather than to the writers of them—to tell the general public why they ought to like or dislike a certain volume, instead of telling the author in what particulars his work was good and in what others it might have been better.

"I believe," says Sir Walter Besant, in his Autobiography, "that one can count on ten fingers the few critics whose judgments are lessons of instruction to writers as well as readers."

It is this dearth of real enlightenment that makes so many first attempts—whether poetry or prose, essays, stories or special articles—sheer guess-work, gropings in the dark. Hundreds of first manuscripts, and second and third manuscripts, too, are written with tremulous hopes and fears, absurdly overvalued one moment and blackly despaired of the next. They start out on their travels, meekly submitted "at your usual rates," and soon come homing back, with only the empty civility of a printed slip to save them from the waste-paper basket That is a fair statement of the average beginner's experience, is it not? And it is looked upon as quite in the natural course of things, a special application of the economic law of supply and demand. It places the young author in the same category with every other class of workman who goes around peddling the produce of his handiwork. And if that produce does not happen to be wanted, there is no logical reason why anyone should be required to buy it, whether it be a sonnet or a sugared waffle.

In an essay entitled, L' Argent dans la Littérature, Zola, writes, with customary bluntness: "The State owes nothing to young writers; the mere fact of having written a few pages does not entitle them to pose as martyrs, because no one will print their work. A shoemaker who has made his first pair of shoes does not force the government to sell them for him. It is the workman's place to dispose of his work to the public. And if he can't do it, if he is a nobody, he remains unknown through his own fault, and quite justly so."

Now it does no good to argue that there is something radically wrong about the present system. It is quite sufficient if we frankly recognise that literature occupies an anomalous position, and to seek for the reason. The great advantage that the arts and professions enjoy in theory over trade and business is that they aim to produce objects of such beauty or service of such importance that the ordinary laws of market value do not apply to them. Aside from literature, there is no profession, excepting the closely allied one of the magazine illustrator, which is subjected to a like degree of precarious uncertainty. Architects, it is true, do occasionally enter plans in a competition for some big public building—but this is an exception to the custom of their craft, a gamble which they enter into voluntarily, fully prepared to be cheerful losers. Young artists may repeatedly have their pictures refused admission to the annual Salons; but at least they have the comfort of knowing that there was just one ground for such refusals, namely, that the pictures were not sufficiently good art. A doctor has some trouble in getting his first case, a lawyer in getting his first brief; but when once they have secured respectively a client and a patient, they count upon being regularly employed; it is inconceivable that they should be dismissed with a printed notice that their dismissal "does not imply a criticism of their intrinsic merits." Even your corner grocer, if you leave him without specified reason and go to a competitor halfway down the block, considers it a criticism, and one that he has a right to resent.

As already implied, there is a very simple reason why the man of letters stands in a class apart. The artist and sculptor, the lawyer and doctor, even the grocer and the plumber, have all in their several ways served a long and relatively costly apprenticeship. They have, to put it colloquially, learned their job before they have been allowed to practise for themselves. Whether they will become distinguished in their several callings or even demonstrate an average skill remains to be proved. But they start with a certain guaranteed fund of foundation knowledge, a certain preliminary craftsmanship. It is conceivable, of course, that a medical student might in his first year, successfully treat some simple case of croup or whooping-cough. But that one achievement would not give him sufficient self-assurance to hang out his sign, even if the laws of his State permitted such recklessness. Yet when the merest tyro in writing happens by some lucky hit to write a story good enough to win acceptance, or even, let us say, a story that has somehow won acceptance although not good enough, his pendulum of self-criticism swings to the outmost verge of elation. He refuses to entertain the possibility of further rejections. He begins to multiply the number of stories he can write a month by the number of months in the year, and the product again by the number of dollars on his first cheque.

Of course, in a majority of cases, such dreams are doomed to the same fate as in the fable of the "Pot of Milk"—and it is fortunate for the world at large, and doubly fortunate for the young author that this is so. The truth is that in literature, as in every other art, there is no such thing as a royal road to fame. Just because a writer is free to hang out his shingle, so to speak, at the very beginning, it does not by any means follow that he is permanently exempted from serving an apprenticeship. And this fact is the sole excuse for dwelling at length upon so commonplace a grievance as rejected manuscripts. Every young writer knows, of course, that he faces repeated rejection; but very few recognise that each manuscript that comes back is part of their education, a definite amount of the time and effort which every apprentice is expected to pay.

The present writer well remembers his own first attempts to write short stories, while still a college undergraduate, and his surprise and resentment when one by one the magazines failed to appreciate them. He grudged the labour spent upon them; he felt, in a vague sort of way, that he had been defrauded. College themes, curiously enough, rested on a different basis. The time spent on them involved no irritation, although they were doomed in advance to be still-born. The reason for this difference was that the writer recognised his college themes as part of the cost of preparation, and that he had not yet learned that his rejected manuscripts were also part of that same preparation—and by far the more important part.

"The worst of all evils, for a beginner," says Zola, in the above-mentioned essay, "is to arrive and to succeed too soon. He ought to know that behind every solid reputation there lie at least twenty years of effort and of labour."

What each man or woman learns from a rejection depends, of course, upon the circumstances of the individual case. It may teach nothing more than the unwisdom of submitting a certain type of story or article to one particular magazine; or again, it may bring a salutary awakening to the fact that what the author fondly believed to be a masterpiece is, after all, a rather tawdry and banal performance. But in any case, a setback is wholesome discipline if it makes a writer ask himself seriously what is the matter with his work—for it is better to tear up half a dozen good manuscripts than to let a single bad one find its way into print. "As remediless as bad work once put forward," is a wise little simile of Mr. Kipling's—you will find it in The Light that Failed, not far from the point at which the two versions of that story part company. It must, however, be borne in mind that no sort of apprenticeship ever created genius—its utmost value is to develop technical skill. In every art there are two indispensable qualities—an Inborn Talent and a slowly and painfully acquired technique the only difference, in the case of literature, being that the technique must in the main be self-taught. The Inborn Talent is, by its very definition, a thing unteachable, although it may be discovered, fostered and developed. It can no more be created by teachers of rhetoric or grammar than a singing-master can create a voice. But the would-be singer has this big advantage over the would-be writer, in that he can easily find a teacher of authority who will tell him in the course of a single interview frankly and conclusively whether his case is hopeless or not—while the young author has no chance of getting such an opinion, and if he had would probably refuse to credit it.

The result is that most new writers are left to learn their value, slowly and painfully, in the unsparing school of experience. And the nature of the lesson is best grasped by applying it to the analogous art of painting. Suppose the young artist left quite to himself, thrown wholly on his own judgment, regarding subject and composition, colour, light and shade. He paints and paints, picture after picture, with only his instinct to tell him whether they are good or bad—and every now and then someone having authority comes along and blots them out with turpentine or a palette knife, and with no word of explanation. The young artist tries again, and still again—and if he has the Inborn Talent, it is conceivable that he may grow slowly through his own efforts, helped only by this purely destructive criticism, until he achieves real greatness. As a matter of fact, this is not the road over which the great painters have travelled, but it is the road by which the masters of literature have attained their goal.

Now let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that a young writer is in no haste to see himself in print, that he would be glad to have some sort of systematic instruction through a period of years, analogous to that of the other arts and crafts: what possible avenues are open to him? The Inborn Talent, of course, cannot be taught; but the technique of good writing not only can be taught, but ought to be. Yet at present, and I say this advisedly, we have not a single well equipped school of instruction in technique—nothing which even pretends to do for writing what the conservatories do for vocal and instrumental music, and schools like the Beaux Arts for painting and architecture. The odd thing is that people have fallen into the habit of thinking that we do possess such opportunities for instruction. Our schools and colleges and universities are paying more attention than ever to rhetoric and theme writing. Children daily puzzle their parents with intricacies of sentence diagrams and strange nomenclature of grammar undreamed of in an earlier generation. And yet the average city editor will tell you that the young college graduate has almost as much to unlearn as to learn before he becomes a useful member of the staff. The late David Graham Phillips, who heartily concurred in this view of the value of college English, was fond of telling the story of how and why he lost his first newspaper position. It was when he was fresh from his studies at Princeton, that after a good deal of persistence he obtained a position on a leading western newspaper, to which he offered his services free of salary. Although it was mid-winter and the city room was barn-like in temperature, he tells how he used to sit at his desk with the perspiration of mental labour pouring from his brow, while he struggled to make literature with a capital L from such material as "This afternoon John Smith, a house-painter, fell off a ladder and broke his arm." Mr. Phillips had held his unsalaried position for about ten days when the higher power who presided over the paper's destinies happened to come through the city room. "Who is that man?" he asked, indicating Mr. Phillips. The city editor explained. "Discharge him," came the curt mandate. "But we are getting him for nothing," protested the city editor. "I don't care if he is paying for the privilege," came the rejoinder; "discharge him immediately! I can't bear to see any human being work so hard!"

The trouble is that in writing we have confused the medium with the art; we have been content, a good deal of the time, to teach language where we meant to teach technique. Writing differs from the other arts in this: that from earliest childhood, its medium of expression has been more or less familiar, more or less skilfully employed. A child of five who cannot put together simple sentences that express his physical needs is considered mentally deficient; whereas, if he can already whistle or sing a popular air correctly his family indicate the fact with pride; and if he can draw a cow that really looks like a cow and not like an abnormal table endowed with horns and tail, he is an infant prodigy. But if we could conceive of a race of intelligent deaf mutes whose customary mode of communication was a highly developed picture language, then we might imagine a manual skill of draughtsmanship acquired from early childhood that would place the medium of the painter on an equality with that of the writer to-day.

Now in our schools and colleges, with the best intentions in the world, what is actually achieved goes very little beyond an increased dexterity in the use of the medium, language. Grammar and rhetoric, even the ability to say quite accurately certain simple and obvious things, do not make up the technique of good writing, any more than the ability to draw a circle or a straight line or to match colours makes up the technique of good painting. And even those few courses which the English departments of our larger universities have in recent years established for the benefit of their graduate students—courses in the structure of the short story and the play and the novel—although they are an encouraging step in the right direction, are not either in kind or in degree quite comparable to the practical training that is open to students in every other branch of art. The best instruction in any craft or profession is a practical training by someone who has already proved himself a master of it. The instructors in our medical schools, our seminaries, our schools of law, are nearly always men who have won their reputation in the sick chamber, the pulpit, the courtroom. And this is the one logical source of learning. Yet in authorship the chance of working directly under the guidance of a master has, so far as I can recall, been exemplified in practice on a large scale only once in the history of letters—and that was in the special brand of historical romance tirelessly produced by the author of Les Trois Mousquetaires and his apprentices—satirically designated as Dumas et Cie, Fabrique de Romans. College instruction in the art of writing is, with a few brilliant exceptions, given by men who are trained critics rather than creative writers—men who know infinitely more about taking a work to pieces than about putting it together. Dissecting is an important part of class work in a course in botany, but it does not help us to a knowledge of how to grow a rose. And you will learn more about building a cathedral by watching it go together, stone by stone, than by seeing a gang of professional wreckers dustily pulling it down.

Are we to understand, then, someone will ask, that the English courses in colleges and graduate schools are a waste of time? Emphatically no, not by any means, so long as we do not mistake the nature of their help. So far as they go they are of distinct value to a student with ambition for authorship—valuable in the same way that courses in literature and foreign languages are valuable; but they carry him no further in his technical training than college courses in biology or constitutional history carry a student forward in the practice of medicine or the law.

Professor A. S. Hill, whose English courses are a pleasant memory to Harvard men of the older generation, wrote pessimistically only a few years ago, in a little volume entitled Our English:

Under the most favourable conditions, the results of English composition as practiced in college are, it must be confessed, discouraging. The shadow of generations of perfunctory writers seems to rest upon the paper, and only here and there is it broken by a ray of light from the present.… I know of no language—ancient or modern, civilized or savage—so insufficient for the purposes of language, so dreary and inexpressive, as theme-language in the mass.

The practical question, then, is: In the absence of special training-schools what advice should be given to a beginner? Are there any lines of special study that he may follow, any form of self-training that he may put himself through? The answer is: Yes, there is the theoretical help of text-books on technique, and there is the practical training of journalism. But it is well to remember, on the one hand, that all the text-books ever written on the English novel will not make a novelist, any more than Ruskin's Modern Painters, even though committed to memory, would make a Millais or a Bouguereau. A newspaper training is a good, wholesome tonic, especially as an antidote to the stilted heaviness of the academic style. It gives a certain fluency, a certain colloquial tone that makes for freedom. "To the wholesome training of severe newspaper work when I was a very young man, I constantly refer my first successes," was Dickens's stereotyped reply to the questions of American reporters.[1] And yet one hesitates to recommend it with the same assurance with which it was to be recommended a quarter century ago. For if the younger generation of American writers have any one conspicuous fault in common, it is that of too journalistic a style.

But there is one question which every amateur writer should ask himself in advance of everything else, and that is: Has he the Inborn Talent? Has he any talent at all, anything worth the saying—worth, that is, the trouble of learning to say in the best possible manner? Has he ideas?—not mere raw material, in the form of things seen and experiences lived—but ideas about them that may be of importance or interest to some portion of the world at large. Let us ask this direct question of every man and woman who reads these pages: Have you taken any pains to satisfy yourself that you possess this Inborn Talent? If not, do so without delay, before you scatter futile ink over another sheet of wasted paper. And it is not just a question of having or not having the creative instinct, but of having it in sufficient degree to make its development really worth while. For the Inborn Talent in a writer may be compared to the grade of ore in a mine—the question is not simply whether there is any precious metal there at all, but whether it is present in paying quantities. It is well to find out, if you can, just how richly your talent will assay, and then work it accordingly.

But, you may retort, how is any one to find out whether he has talent? Who is to be the judge? How can the author himself or any one else know surely whether repeated rejections through a course of months mean hopeless mediocrity or the handicap of crude methods—whether improvement is a matter of being born again or merely of buckling down and laboriously learning the job? And just here, of course, lies the real difficulty of making this advice practical. No one can answer this first and most important question for you—no one, at least, so authoritatively as to convince you even against your will. But you yourself can answer a few, frank questions that will go a long way toward enlightening you: Why are you trying to write? What preparations have you had that make you believe you are qualified? How long ago did you begin to try? What sort of encouragement have you so far received? These are questions which no one else can answer for you; for no two cases are precisely alike. But you cannot answer them honestly without having a strong conviction steal over you either that you have or that you have not the Inborn Talent.

Do you write, for instance, as the born artist paints or the born musician plays, because you feel a compelling necessity for self-expression? Or do you write as the house painter wields his brush or the barrel-organ man turns his handle, merely for the sake of the dollars or the dimes? Have you strong prejudices in regard to the kind of writing you are ready to do? Or are you willing to write in any form, on any subject, from a sonnet to a breakfast food advertisement? Most of us at one time or another have found ourselves under the temporary necessity of doing something more or less in the nature of "hack-work," work that not only meant drudgery but that took us away from bigger, finer things. Yet it is not the willingness to do "hack-work" and to do it cheerfully and thoroughly, when the occasion demands, that proves we lack the Inborn Talent—it is the failure to distinguish between what is "hack-work" and what is not; the spirit of indifference which looks upon all kinds of writing indiscriminately as a marketable produce, that degrades authorship from a profession to a trade.

Or again, what has been your preparation, up to the time when you send off your first essay or poem or story, stamps enclosed, to take its chances with some editor? Does your real apprenticeship begin now with its toll of disappointments and delays; manuscripts that grow soiled and shabby and one by one are consigned to the waste-basket? Or have you been unconsciously apprenticed to literature from early childhood, surrounded by an atmosphere of books, absorbing, because you could not help it, correct ideas of form and technique from the daily conversation around you? Are you still in the first enthusiasm of youth with your views of life still mainly rose-coloured dreams? Or have you spent the first thirty or forty years of your life face to face with hard realities, in the activities of business or of travel and adventure—as a soldier of fortune rather than man of letters? It does not follow that in the one case you have the inborn literary instinct and that in the other you have not. Ruskin at the age of five had already entered upon his apprenticeship. Before he had learned to write, he had taught himself a makeshift method of vertical printing with a pencil, and had undertaken a story in three-volume form, the name of which escapes the memory, and really does not matter. The significant thing about it is that this precocious child of five was already so saturated with the atmosphere of books, so familiar with their form and make-up, that with the imitative fidelity of his age, he added to his own work a carefully compiled page of errata. Sir Walter Besant, after having endured a six years' exile, occupying a Colonial Professorship on the island of Mauritius, records upon his return, "I began life again at the age of thirty-one; my capital was a pretty extensive knowledge acquired by voracious and indiscriminate reading."

Mr. Morgan Robertson, the writer of sea stories, is a conspicuous example of a man who for years had lived apart from books, one decade before the mast, and another as an expert diamond setter and then suddenly surprised himself by revealing the Inborn Talent. But his is an exceptional case. There are a good many men whose love of adventure has given them a rich variety of experience, whose early life has been spent in the danger-places of the world. They are apt to think that they possess the gift because they have the material—and yet these two things have practically nothing in common. It is not the material but the instinct to use it in the right way that makes the Inborn Talent. It is quite a common experience to have men come for advice who have spent years in queer, out-of-the-way corners of the earth and have had adventures rich in thrills and shudders, such as would make Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island sound a little tame; and almost invariably what they say is this: "We have the material. Teach us the technique!" Yet in the majority of cases even a knowledge of technique would probably not make stories that they would write sound otherwise than commonplace. For it is one of the commonest things in the world to find that men can live adventurous lives without being really aware of it in a big dramatic sense that they can pass through places of great danger, inimitable strangeness, matchless beauty; and yet when they come to write them down, they might just as well be describing adventures in their own back yard.

The Inborn Talent, then, is something distinct from the material of our experience and the technical use we make of that material. Just what it is proves rather baffling to define. But at least it includes several different elements: First, the art of really seeing—the artist's eye, which looks through and beyond the mere outward material aspect and sees the vision of some great, unpainted picture. Secondly, a fine instinct for the value of words—a gift that is something quite different from mere richness of vocabulary on the one hand, and the possession of style, on the other. Vocabulary may be increased at will by patiently memorising a dictionary; and style is a matter of cadence and sound sequence—it is quite possible to write rather sad trash in an impeccable style. But a sense of the value of words, an instinct for finding, within the limits of our spoken language, the precise word and phrase that will as nearly as possible convey a thought that is perhaps bigger or subtler than any spoken words—this indeed stamps the possessor as having the Inborn Talent. And lastly, it includes the possession of ideas, as distinct from knowledge. You may know a vast number of useful facts, such as that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points—but such knowledge no more constitutes the Inborn Talent than such a definition constitutes literature. But ideas, big, vital ideas, of the compelling sort that force themselves into written words, in the face of obstacles and disappointments and the inertia of public indifference, are the very essence of the creative spirit, the golden hallmark of the Inborn Talent.

  1. The late Edouard Rod declared himself even more emphatically in favour of a newspaper training: "Journalism is an excellent school: it stimulates sluggish minds, it disciplines roving imaginations, it brings into direct contact with the public certain writers who otherwise would have remained unknown to the general public, and who during the process of becoming known, learn reciprocally to know their public. This is useful and healthy: because it is, after all, for others that we write.… The school of journalism is exacting and wearisome, it is true; but that is not an evil. Certain writers, they tell you, in the slang of the editorial room, 'write themselves dry;' but it is only those who had nothing of importance to lose."