A writer is a strange creature
From the November 1938 issue of The Writer
Published: January 26, 2007
|Tis a strange and rather puzzling thing, that the profession of writing should cause more interest and curiosity in the mind of the layman than any other craft in the world.|
The plumber is not questioned as to how he mends his pipe, nor the road mender begged to give an explanation of the whys and wherefores of his pick and shovel, though the skill required is much greater than that of a novelist with his pen. The layman will shrug a shoulder and say ii the comparison is absurd, what has art to do with manual labor?" and here I think the layman is at fault. Why should the artist, be he writer, actor, painter, composer, be considered as though he were a species apart from his fellow men, a rare being, dreamy and temperamental, who works when he chooses and when the spirit moves him, living in another world from road menders and plumbers? Even today, when every young man has written an autobiography at twenty one, and every school girl a novel at sixteen, the aura of mystery surrounding the profession still persists, and the whisper has only to be spread abroad that So and So "Writes" for Soand So to be looked upon with awe, a certain amount of respect intermingled with doubt and fear, and to have all his follies excused on the grounds of temperament. We hear nothing of the temperamental plumber, though a twisted pipe must require very much more planning than a sentence gone awry. No, the fact is that the writer continues to be a "type" in the mind of the non writer, in the same way as the stage person, the servant who drops her aitches, and the red faced colonel from India. The very manner of his working, alone, in a closed room, adds a little spice of glamor. The actor works before his public, the musician plays, even the painter hold court in his studio and can wield a brush before an audience, but the writer, the mysterious writer, what does he look like, what does he do, behind that fastened door? It can't be that he just sits down at a desk, at nine o'clock, and opens his typewriter, like any junior clerk?
Alas, for the romantic layman, but such is generally the case. If not the typewriter it is the more modern dictaphone; office hours are kept, nine till one, and two till five; so many thousand words per day can usually be guaranteed, and at five o'clock the manuscript is put away until the following morning. The fallacy still exists, of course, that a sensation of pleasure is experienced by this rare creature, the author. How many people have said to me at one time or another, "How marvelous it must be just to sit down whenever you feel like it and write. I suppose it just pours from you."
Put in this way the act of writing sounds like a hideous form of vice. If only it were true! How nice it would be to lock the door every morning and turn on the tap. "Tell me," they continue, "what it is you do exactly. Do you start at the beginning and go on until you have got to the end?" My longing to say "No, one starts at the end and works backward," will, I know, get the better of me one day.
Another error committed by the layman is his or her habit of believing that an author is forever in search of copy. A casual dinner party among friends and someone says, with an arch smile, "I hope you are not going to put us all down in your next book," as though one kept a note book down the bosom of an evening dress.
To reply, "I'm afraid I have a family to keep," would sound discourteous. Funnily enough, little credit is given to the imagination. It is always supposed that a novel must be based on something that has really happened, and that the more scurrilous parts of the story are but thinly disguised versions of one's own past. "I can't think what made you write about such a dreadful man," I remember someone saying once with a surreptitious glance at my husband, and a look of surprise that he had not the hooked features and gigantic frame of Joss Merlyn in "Jamaica Inn."
"You must know the under life of Paris very well," was another remark, full of meaning, made by a woman whose daughters were not allowed to read "The Progress of Julius," my third book, written after walking through the market place in Neuilly. Nor did she believe me when I told her that my visits to Paris were always spent with a friend who kept a finishing school. Even my own family have their doubts.
"You always seem to write about such unpleasant things, darling. Why not write something cheerful for a change?"
And what can I do but shake my head and sigh and murmur sadly, I will try again. But there it is, the whole crux of this writing business. We do not choose our subjects, they choose themselves. How I should love to write a gay, high spirited tale, full of wit and humor, every line a gem. What I would give to make people split their sides with mirth. But it does not happen. The laughter will not come. I laugh, I think, as much as most people, and my life is a very happy one, with husband, home and children. But I go for a walk on a moor and see a twisted tree and a pile of granite stones beside a deep, dark pool, and "Jamaica Inn" is born.
I find a lot of old letters in a forgotten drawer belonging to my grandfather and his father before him, and their days of ease and pleasure do not interest me at all, I care for none of them. I must know why they wept and why they suffered, and what strange memories enfolded these du Mauriers of sixty, a hundred years ago.
"You'll never be a great writer," said my husband once, "until you write a happy story about happy people." I believe he is right. But I can't do anything about it. They creep so insidiously, these creatures of the imagination, before I am aware, and they fasten themselves upon the hidden places of the mind, and feed there, and take root, and once they are securely lodged I cannot banish them. They must develop and become little men and women and tell their story, and once the story is told they can return to the dust from whence they came, and be remembered no more. And what is the dust from whence they sprang? I cannot say. Nor can any wri er, unless his tales are true ones and not thing of the imagination. No doubt heredity has played its part with me. A grandfather who was melancholy and gay by turn, wistful in "Peter lbbetson," dramatic in "Trilby," and a father whose life upon the stage made him a thousand different people. A childhood of dressing up, of forever being a character other than oneself, being an Indian, a Cavalier, a Huguenot, a smuggler followed by an adolescence when one read too much, thirstily, greedily, by the light of a fire, Stevenson, Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, fairy tales and Guy de Maupassant all in one breath. Small wonder the result is a little distorted! In my last book, "Rebecca," started in Egypt in September of 1937, and finished in April of this year, there is a certain housekeepeer, called Mrs. Danvers, who may "steal the thunder" as the movie people say, of the leading characters. How I thought of her I cannot say. Like Topsy, she "growed." She may have come from a picture seen as a child, a nightmare long forgotten, and the vision of a genuine housekeeper, seen on the terrace of a big house when the owners were away, who wore the sweeping black dress of thirty years ago that touched the ground, and whose face was, if I remember rightly, pale and gaunt.
There is a house in Cornwall that is very much like Manderley. The drive is a wilderness, the gardens are unkept, the house itself unoccupied. I came upon it first by chance, being by nature an inveterate trespasser. The woods encroach upon the house, as they do in the story, and the rabbits play upon the lawns. It is one of the loveliest, saddest places that I have ever seen. No one has lived there for over twenty years, but it waits there, silent, watchful, for the owner to return. Some say it is haunted. Some say there is no ghost. Perhaps no story lies behind those gray walls save the day by day routine of ordinary people who left merely because they wished to make their home elsewhere. Perhaps one day I shall meet the owner, and he will turn out to be a little man with spectacles and a large wife and several children, and he will tell me that he always liked the house but they do not live there as they are uncertain of the drains. Perhaps. . . . All I know is that the woods are very dark when the sun goes down behind the beacon on the headland, and that an owl flits across the lawn as the shadows come. The rhododendrons are blood colored when they bloom, and the scent of the azaleas lingers long upon the air. And the people I met at cocktail parties in Egypt and who said to me "I'm sure you are putting us all in a book" would have felt slighted no doubt, and disappointed, had they realized that not one word of their conversation was to be put on paper after all, but that someone called Rebecca, who had never lived, who existed only in my imagination, held me in thrall, even as the Belle Dame Sans Merci held the gentle Knight at Arms.
(Reprinted from Wings, the Literary Guild Magazine.)
--Posted Jan. 26, 2007