Mrs. Hawkins only wants us poor, struggling writers to succeed. Mrs. Hawkins is an editor at a publishing house (the pay is bad but the position is coveted). She doesn’t want to read our tedious manuscripts anymore and will return them with only the note that they are, “incapable of further improvement.” Or, if she doesn’t like you, she may be less diplomatic:
Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it. . . . His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.
It isn’t her fault she’s so put out. It’s our bad writing that draws the words out of her mouth. She preaches truth to power. She’s just trying to make us better writers and better human beings.
In Muriel Spark’s 18th novel, A Far Cry From Kensington, the protagonist Mrs. Hawkins says, “I have always been free with advice; but it is one thing to hand out advice and another to persuade people to accept it.” The problem, you see, is not the quality of the advice, it is us. Writers are far too stubborn. I, for instance, am convinced that every draft I submit for publication is a perfectly polished gem, an immaculately balanced bit of wit and elegance. Opaque, you say? Turgid? In desperate need of a slash-and-burn variety of editing? Perhaps if you catch me at in a vulnerable moment I’ll admit that, theoretically, I can profit from a bit of advice now and then, but I’ll deny it later (and I’m not admitting it now). I don’t expect any of us writerly types to ever admit it in public, but perhaps in the solitude of our own homes, we all might benefit from the advice of Mrs. Hawkins.
Write about something in particular
One day, into Mrs. Hawkins’s office comes “a young man, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, the author of a large novel about nothing in particular.” His physical beauty, though, doesn’t translate to his prose. The novel is terrible, but Mrs. Hawkins is nothing if not indulgent, and she chats with the young man for a while in her office, eventually offering him some advice:
“I told him we couldn’t take the book but he should try another, more concise, not so long and rambling, and about something in particular.”
He asked about Finnegans Wake and Buddenbrooks.
“He said it contained nothing but details.”
He went on and asked about Proust, who everyone knows is hardly a model worth emulating, because, of course, there is only one Proust and will only ever be one Proust. I do admit that one of the most difficult aspects of writing is to limit myself to a single, concise point. I fall prey to the temptation to pack as much digression and intrigue into each article as possible. The result is more or less unreadable. You know … like Proust. (Sorry, I can’t help myself).
Write as if it’s a letter to a friend
Mrs. Hawkins says,
You are writing a letter to a friend…Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you…What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers.
No joke, this may be the best advice on writing that I have ever read.
Get a cat
This advice is for those who lack concentration.
“For concentration,” I said, “You need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?”
“Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.”
So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command that was lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”
The man in question got a cat and finally finished his book. The picture in the dust jacket included a cat sitting under the lamp on the desk. The book itself was quite boring, but of course the advice wasn’t on how to write well but on how to improve concentration. A cat cannot write a book for you.