October 8, 2018

We don’t necessarily agree with Mark Twain’s writing advice


According to Mark Twain, master of satiric commentary and famed writer of boyhood adventures like Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the key to writing a great novel is personal tragedy through prolonged life experience.

Portrait of Mark Twain, A.F. Bradley (1907)

Atlas Obscura took a deep dive into Twain’s correspondence. In an 1881 letter correspondence to an aspiring writer who sought advice on his manuscript, Twain wrote with possibly too much honesty:

Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted… I do not see how any but a colossal genius can write a readable prose book before he is 30 years old…

Apparently, being young of age means a lack of life experience, which in turn, means that one cannot possibly produce a viable oeuvre until after they’ve reached their thirties. Certainly, Twain, having lived through the entire duration of the American Civil War, may have a point in his own wealth of life experience, but it does sting quite a bit to see a young writer’s efforts dismissed so easily. His only exception seems to be “those Bronte sisters” whose “readable prose” made them “gigantic geniuses,” made possible by the Bronte sisters’ own tragic childhoods.

In short: if you don’t have a Big Bad Tragic Past, then your novel ain’t worth a dime.

Though, let’s unpack this. In our current 2018 political climate, it’s safe to say that we as a generation have experienced just as much tragedy as Twain, if not more, magnified by the invention of social media and global real-time updates of world events. Even if we individually have not experienced personal tragedy, we are nonetheless shaped by the shared experiences of others through newsfeeds and the omniscient presence of the Internet.

Our exposure to so many events within the past decade alone has aged this generation so quickly, that in this case, age really is just a number. Take the following examples into consideration: #MeToo movement, the current Trump/Russia scandal, ongoing climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so forth. To callously disregard our voices just because of our age is to deny our participation in history, and that is a foolish move to make.

However, the rest of his advice does have some merit. Craft is not easily achieved just through tragedy alone; that comes with practice. And Twain adds quite rightly, “Ours is a trade which has to be learned—there is no getting around that requirement….” That’s a lesson even I’m willing to endorse.


Erica Huang is former Melville House intern.