Sunday, August 4, 2013

"Everything You Feel Like Telling"

I am reading Edith Wharton's autobiography, A Backward Glance. It is rich with information on her development as a writer. Most interesting is her commentary on her critic, Walter Berry, who essentially "taught" her to write. I quote much of what she says in its entirety, as it is invaluable for both writers and critics.

About Walter Berry, she writes: "No critic was ever severer, but none had more respect for the artist's liberty. He taught me never to be satisfied with my own work, but never to let my inward conviction as to the rightness of anything I had done be affected by outside opinion."

Stuck with the development of a novel, she asked his opinion.  "He looked through what I had written, handed it back, and said simply: 'Don't worry about how you're to go on. Just write down everything you feel like telling.' The advice freed me once for all from the incubus of an artificially pre-designed plan, and sent me rushing ahead with my tale, letting each incident create the next, and keeping in sight only the novelist's essential sign-post; the inner significance of the "case" selected. Yet when the novel was done, I remember how meticulously he studied it from the point of view of language, marking down faulty syntax and false metaphors, smiling away over-emphasis and unnecessary repetitions, helping me patiently through the beginner's verbal perplexities, yet never laying hands on what he considered sacred: the soul of the novel, which is (or should be) the writer's own soul."

It is good to know that even one of America's greatest writers struggled to learn, and that the manuscripts she produced (according to a guide at The Mount, she wrote every morning in bed for four hours) all needed help from a sharp-eyed critic who respected what she was trying to say.


  1. Critique partners are definitely invaluable! It's amazing what outside eyes can catch.

  2. A group is even better than depending on one person, no matter how skillful. In a group, you can depend on critiques specializing in plot, character development, style,etc. because each member has a particular critiquing talent.

  3. I love how within a group, different readers catch different problems. And when everyone catches the same problem, there is no doubt it must be fixed!