Advice to writers, 1853-7
A literary giant's familiar struggles
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Many thoughts had collected, but a kind of invincible aversion hindered me from finishing it. As in everything in life, so in writing…
I read this week that book enthusiast Jeremy Anderberg has a project, The Big Read, where he posts a chapter of Leo Tolstoy’s famously long1 novel War and Peace every day, inviting discussion in the comments section below (you can similarly comment on these Histories posts, of course, underneath the web version or by replying to the email!).
I’m plotting a collaborative project here myself, in conjunction with a new app, but more on that next time; meanwhile, this week’s edition is a shortish one. I spotted that on this day, 21st January, in 1854, Tolstoy (1828–1910) happened to write this in his diary:
Here is a fact one should often think of. Thackeray was thirty years preparing to write his first novel, but Dumas writes two a week.
You should not show your writings to anyone before they are finished. You would hear more harmful reflections than useful advice.
You could read that two ways, of course, but Tolstoy himself was prolific – and certainly aspired to Get Things Done. And as many aspiring writers love reading the bons mots of writerly advice from famous authors, I thought I’d track down what else he had to say about the craft.2 (It’s reassuring at least that his diary often complains about not being able to concentrate, or notes his poor output. A sample from 8th July 1853: “Got up late, started writing, but did not get on: am much dissatisfied with my aimless and disorderly life.”)
11th September 1853: Wrote in the morning and evening, but only a little. Cannot master my idleness. Have planned writing a chapter at a sitting and not getting up till I have finished it.
24th October 1853: Rose earlier than yesterday and sat down to write the last chapter. Many thoughts had collected, but a kind of invincible aversion hindered me from finishing it. As in everything in life, so in writing, the past conditions the future. It is difficult to resume a neglected work with ardour, and consequently to do it well. I considered alterations in Boyhood but made none. Must jot down remarks off-hand and simply begin to rewrite it. [Editorial note: we should bear in mind that Tolstoy wrote Boyhood while serving in the Crimean War – so his ability to cope with distractions was perhaps better than he claimed!]
31st October, 1853: To look over work that has been completed in rough draft, striking out all that is superfluous and adding nothing—that is the first process…
I am frequently held up when writing by hackneyed expressions which are not quite correct, true, or poetic, but the fact that one meets them so frequently often makes me write them. These unconsidered, customary expressions, of the inadequacy of which one is aware but which one tolerates because they are so customary, will appear to posterity a proof of bad taste. To tolerate these expressions means to go with one’s age, to correct them means to go in advance of it.
c.31st December, 1853: The method I have adopted from the start, of writing only short chapters, is the most convenient. Each chapter should express only one thought and only one feeling.
5th January 1854: In writing one is often delayed by a wish to insert some good, or well-expressed, thought; therefore whenever you find it difficult to place a particular thought, jot it down in the Diary without allowing the desire to introduce it in the work delay you. The thought will find itself a place.
8th January 1854: Did not get on well with my writing. Must follow the rule of omitting without adding.
24th June: In writing adopt the rule of drawing up a programme, making a rough draft and a fair copy — without finally polishing each period. One judges incorrectly and unfavourably, if one re-reads often. The charm and interest of novelty and of the unexpected vanishes, and one often strikes out what is good but seems bad from frequent repetition. The chief thing is that this method adds zeal to the work. Worked all day and cannot reproach myself with anything. Hurrah!
15th July 1857: Writing is hard work. Was not lazy but have only revised five sheets the whole day, and they must again be corrected.
[And to finish, here are two of his later writings on writing…]
23rd March 1865:3 I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.
21st April 1887 [letter to F. A. Zheltov]:4 The main thing is, not to be in a hurry to write, not to get tired of going over and over and correcting the same thing ten or even twenty times, not to write too much, and, by the mercy of God, not to make writing one’s means of living or showing off to others.
It’s nearly 600,000 words (ten times the size of a typical modern paperback). You can find other, even longer epics here.
Entries below are from The Private Diary of Leo Tolstoy 1853–1857 edited by Aylmer Maude (Heinemann, 1927) unless otherwise stated.
Source: Tolstoy’s Diaries Volume 1: 1847-1894 edited by R.F. Christian (Faber, 2015).
Source: Leo Tolstoy in Conversation with Four Peasant Sectarian Writers edited by Liudmila Gladkova (University of Ottawa Press, 2019).