Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness
By Maria Popova
English poet, essayist,literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709–December 13, 1784) endures as one of the most influential figures in literary history. His Dictionary of the English Language, originally published in 1755, is celebrated as one of the highest achievements of Western scholarship. A brilliant man yet a confounding figure in his lifetime, his peculiar tics and quirky gestures were only posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome.
He was also a man of uncommon sagacity, which was collected a century after his death in the 1888 volume Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (public library; public domain). Here are some of Johnson’s most timeless insights on writing — a fine addition to this omnibus of great writers’ wisdom on the craft.
Like Thomas Edison, who believed that “success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” and Alexander Graham Bell, who argued that It is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Johnson reminds us that writing is an undertaking that requires remarkable self-discipline:
Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.
In a sentiment later echoed by E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Chuck Close (“inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), and Neil Gaiman (“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist.”), Johnson insists that doggedness outweighs “inspiration”:
A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.
And yet he offers a disclaimer — a cushion against the cult of productivity:
Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write, nor has any man at all times something to say.
Like Zadie Smith, who counseled to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied,” and Neil Gaiman, who advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Johnson admonishes that getting too hung up on perfectionism ensures frustration rather than elegance:
It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance and make one of its members answer to the other: but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.
Like Ray Bradbury, who asserted that the only way to write well is to write intensely and emotionally, and only when you’re done to think about it and revise, Johnson advocates for letting the intuitive mind, free and uninhibited, shape the initial stages of ideation, only later allowing the rational mind to filter and edit:
The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur; and, when you have matter, you will easily give it form: nor, perhaps, will this method always be necessary; for by habit your thoughts and diction will flow together.
For more notable wisdom on the written word, complement Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.
Published September 18, 2013