R. H. Benson On Writing

R. H. Benson On Writing October 16, 2014

R. H. Benson’s Spiritual Letters to One of His Converts appeared in a bookseller’s list when I was searching for another book and when it arrived I was pleased to find in it a section titled “To one beginning a literary career.”

Benson, the son of an archbishop of Canterbury and an extraordinarily eccentric mother (see this review), left the Anglican ministry to become a Catholic and then a priest. He wrote some very good apologetic works — as good as Knox’s or Chesterton’s in specifically Catholic apologetics, but now alas pretty much unread — and many novels, mostly historical, like his story of the Elizabethan persecution of the Church, Come Rack, Come Rope. Perhaps his most famous is the dystopian novel, one of the first, Lord of the World. He died in 1914 at 42.

Here are some selections from the chapter on beginning a literary career. I’ve put the page numbers in brackets.

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ON THE GIFT & CALLING

Without the slightest doubt you have got the “seeing eye” and the power of expression. These are the only two things that matter in the least. All the rest is simply technique and hard work. Without these (“eye and hand”) technique and work are useless. [100]

I do not see why God has developed in you a desire to write, and has given you success, unless He means you to do something with it. Of course He may mean you to sacrifice it; but one has to have strong reasons for thinking that, and I don’t see them. [104]

What is quite certain is that you are meant to write; and if that is incompatible with circumstances these must be changed. [113]

THE WRITER’S READING

[T]he first thing I would say is, Prune your reading, and read what you do read with an eye on the style, and as to why certain things are effective — e.g. epithets, gaps, rhythm. I should read no magazines ever — no, none. And never leading articles [editorials]. I should use Latin devotions in preference to English — for English Catholic devotions are really lethal to style. . . . Then, slowly, I should keep an extremely careful diary, regarding it as the public would regard it. [99]

[G]enerally, you must read carefully and intelligently, and only the best authors. Don’t corrupt your taste by anything else. Avoid third-rate novels like poison; read first-rate novels greedily. And above all, read Stevenson again and again; and a certain amount of Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Newman. These are the people for style. . . .
The books I recommend first are:

KidnappedMaster of BallantraeAcross the Plains. (Stevenson.)
Marius the Epicurean. (Pater.)
The Apologia. (Newman.)
Sesame and Lilies. (Ruskin.) [100-101 & 104]

THE REQUIRED WORK

[Y]ou must carve and re-carve for the present — being perfectly willing to go over a MS. again and again in all moods, especially in the moods when you fell alert and intuitive.
Next, you must write a lot. I should strongly recommend a diary of description — putting down tiny phrases too at odd times; tiny similes; perfect epithets. [101]

ON WORD CHOICE

You use sometimes the conventional words instead of the exactly right words. You describe distant plains as green. They are never green, except once in a hundred years. If you mean green you must draw attention to that fact. [101]

“What,” asked Father Benson, in the course of an instruction on the perfect selection of the adjective, “is, for instance, the difference between ‘gleaming’ and ‘glittering’? You’ve got both in this paragraph, and I want to know how you differentiate.” The supper-table, happily for me, supplied half the answer. “silver — polished silver — gleams, and diamonds glitter,” I ventured, for this was a serious matter! “Right,” he said; “I just wanted to see if you knew why you used them.” [111]

ON STRUCTURE

Your article is the wrong “shape.” Tennyons once said a poem was like an apple-rind, curving in a particular kind of way, ending in a final kind of way. Do you see that? A picture, too, must have a focus. Your paper hasn’t a focus; it is a yard of canvas painted beautifully; but here is no reason why it should stop at a particular moment. The remedy for this is to shape an outline first.

Introduction

Point I (bang), flowing out of this
is Point II (bang), and thence
follows Point III (BANG!)
With a kind of ripple flowing away into silence*
(if it is of that kind). [101-102]

* This is printed in decreasingly small type till “silence” is very small.

ON VARIOUS TECHNIQUES

[D]o study alliteration,both of consonants and vowels. It is a trick, of course, and becomes a vice if you aren’t careful. But it adds extraordinary polish if used in moderation. [104]

No, don’t be afraid of adjectives, so long as they are exactly right ones. [104]

I should say “I” instead of “one” as often as possible. [105]

ON REVISION

After he strongly criticized a story:

What I recommend is this. Put this MS. instantly into a drawer. Take paper and pencil and write down a skeleton on this subject, with points and sub-points: so that it makes a curve and ends inevitably. Then write a first paragraph. Then take the MS. out of a drawer, take it to pieces, and fit it into the skeleton. [103]

On his own work:

Just now I am at the dismal labour of rewriting a dreary book on Charles II [Oddsfish], which I loathe. It is the sixth time.

ON SELLING THE STORY, after telling him to rewrite it

I dare say lots of papers would take the MS. as it is; I dare say after correction they won’t. But they would be entirely wrong in both cases; and you will be right. And that is what matters in a literary life. [103]


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