Sunday, 7 November 2004

Writers’ limitations

I started serious writing when I was ten, with a very short story called A Cumbersome Carthorse. When I re-read it in later years I realized that the plot was unrealistic, the dialogue feeble and the characterization nil. It barely deserved the 7 out of 10 that I got for it, and apart from its other weaknesses I accepted the justice of a comment which I much resented at the time, which was simply: Handwriting!

By then I had also realised that I was never going to be able to write fiction. I had become a competent amateur hack and earned a few pounds from a quarter of a million words of criticism, whimsy, and parody, but I knew that thinking up interesting characters, and exciting things to happen to them, and amusing lines for them to speak, would forever be beyond me.
Even some great writers may recognise their limitations, though few have described them with as light a touch as James Thurber. He knew that he was not a novelist and, further:

“… Of course, there is always the drama, but that is just as difficult for me. I have tried a couple of plays and I always run into appalling problems. One of these is that my plays are always over at the end of the first act. There is never any reason in the world any of the characters should ever see each other again. Another problem is that although the people I put in plays talk quite glibly, they don’t do anything. They just sit there. I once wrote a whole act in which nobody moved. The expedient of going back over such an act and having the characters shift from chair to sofa and back again, smoking cigarettes, is not much of a help.
It is also extremely difficult to get characters on and off the stage dexterously. It may look easy, but it isn’t easy. I have frequently had to resort to dogfights. 'I must go out and separate those dogs' is not, however, a sound or convincing exit line for someone you have to get off the stage. Furthermore, you can only use the dogfight device once unless the dogs are total strangers who have been tied up together in the back yard, and that would have to be explained. You can’t explain the relationship of two dogs, particularly two dogs your audience hasn’t seen, in less than thirty seconds, and thirty seconds is a long time in the theatre. The critics would write that the play was a noisy prank which nobody need go to see if he has anything else to do at all."
The New Yorker, 1934

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