This post is a summary of W. Somerset Maugham‘s book The Summing Up, in which he writes in an essay-like fashion on a number of topics related to writing and his life. Maugham was a prolific writer who had a lot of smart things to say about a great many things as you will soon see. As I read the book it became abundantly clear that Maugham’s insights to writing, life, of adjusting to the market and learning through trial and error, are all of a very high calibre. He was a disciplined guy.
Even though it is a rather short book (ca 200 pages), it is a no-bullshit-straight-to-the-point kind of book that one does not read lightly. Every page is important and it is easy to lose focus and forgo the point.
I wanted to get whatever knowledge I could about the general structure of the universe; I wanted to make up my mind whether I had to consider only this life or a life to come; I wanted to discover whether I was a free agent or whether my feeling that I could mould myself was an illusion; I wanted to know whether life had any meaning or whether it was I that must strive to give it one. So in a desultory way I began to read.
Maugham’s three most important criteria when it comes to writing are as follows:
Some of his principles when it comes to writing are as follows:
- Get to the point and stick to it. Reduce digressions; however witty, funny, or smart a certain line may be; if it is not essential to your story cut it. Especially important when writing scripts or plays; most people have a low attention span and will get bored unless something happens all the time.
- The first characters introduced in the story will tend to be viewed as protagonists and cared for the most. The viewer/reader will give these characters the most of their attention and perceived them as most important. (Very true of The Starks in Game of Thrones, hah!)
- It is hard to disperse importance and attention to many characters or subplots. (Dan Brown’s specialty)
Two main reasons for obscurity exist in literature; that of negligence and that of wilfulness. The first has to do with being lazy or simply lacking the ability to write simply. The second is common in academia, people write unnecessarily complicated to seem like they know more than they do and appear smart.
On using the first word that comes to mind:
It looked as if [Jonathan] Swift had made do with the first word that came to mind… I copied passages and tried to write them out again from memory. I tried altering words or in the order they were set. I found that the only possible words were those that Swift had chosen, it was impeccable prose.
Is a writer’s personality reflected in his or her style of writing?
The dictum that the style is the man is well known. It is one of those aphorisms that say too much to mean a great deal. Where is the man in Goethe, in his birdlike lyrics or in his clumsy prose? And Hazlitt? But I suppose that if a man has a confused mind he will write in a confused way, if he has a quick, darting intelligence that is reminded by the matter in hand of a hundred things he will, unless he has great self-control, load his pages with metaphor and simile.
Maugham studied at medical school, like Michael Crichton, and also worked at a hospital where he came into contact with a lot of suffering people. This has a profound effect on his life and he felt it was great material and wrote a lot about it. During that time many upper-class people from England wrote moral books about the virtue of self-suffering and how it ennobled one; Maugham felt it was the complete opposite and wrote a book about that.
I do not know of any better training for the writer’s profession than that of spending time in the medical profession.
On breaking the romantic image many people back in those days had about writers:
It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and then they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved; they do not understand that what interests you is the way in which you have created the illusion.
Anthony Trollope ceased to be read for 30 years because he confessed that he wrote at regular hours and took care to get the best price he could for his work.
Looking back on the course of his writing career:
I’m a made writer. But it would be vanity if I thought that such results as I have achieved on myself were due to a design that I deliberately carried out. I was drawn to various courses by very simple motives, and it is only on looking back that I discover myself subconsciously working toward a certain end. The end was to make up for the deficiencies.
It took me a long time to resign myself to making the best of what I had.
On writing novels:
The novelist should know something about the great issues that occupy men, who are his topics, but it is generally enough if he knows little. He must avoid pedantry at all costs.
On writing plays:
The best way of learning to write a play is to see the production of one of your own.
On cutting words and abundance vs scarcity-minded writers, a man who conceives of few ideas tend to be biased and fall in love with his ideas out of scarcity (true of everything), rather than see the situation in an objective context as he would if he had more ideas:
It is no wonder that people to whom words come so reluctantly should attach an inordinate importance to them. The man of letters is accustomed to writing; he has learnt how to express himself without intolerable labour and so can cut with fortitude.
Of course every writer hits now and then upon a thought that seems to him so happy, a repartee that amuses him so much, that to cut it is worse than having a tooth out; it is in these moments that it is well to have engraved on your heart the maxim, if you can, cut.
On Maugham’s friend Granville Barker, also a successful playwright, who took on the approach of “I know better than the market, I will teach it to conform to me”. (That only works for Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, not for playwrights).
If he [Granville Barker] had not been persuaded that the public are fools who must be bullied rather than cajoled, he would by the natural way of trial and error have learnt to correct his fault.
On following interest:
After I had written a play and corrected the typescript I no longer paid any interest in it.
On work ethic and long-term outlook:
The writer can rest assured that the book he wants to forget writing will be forgotten.
The books I wrote during the first ten years after I had become a professional writer were the exercises by which I sought to learn my business. For one of the difficulties that beset the professional writer is that he must acquire his craft at the expense of the public. He is constrained to write by the instinct within him and his brain teems with subjects. He has not the skill to cope with them. His experience is too narrow. He is crude and does not know how to make the best of such gifts as he has.
On writing as art:
The artist produces for liberation of his soul. It is his nature to create as it is the nature of water to run down a hill. It is not for nothing that artists have called their works the children of their brains and likened the pains of production to the pains of childbirth.
Sometimes the artist must ask himself whether what he has written has any value to anyone but himself.
On the creative process:
I usually let things simmer in my brain for a long time, it was not until after four years that I used my notes to write a novel.
On Audiences & Crowds
Here are some of the key things Maugham has learnt through many years of trial and error during his successful career as a playwriter. I find the same principles to be somewhat accurate to TV and cinema as well.
- The audience’s mental capacity is far less than the audience’s most intelligent member.
- It wants to escape tension by laughter and will take any reasonable excuse to do so; but it desperately needs a reason, however little, to do so.
- Individuals know that they give into impulse, but the audience wants a logic reason to laugh.
- The audience is immensely suggestible; individuals will laugh at a joke they do not understand, so long as their neighbours do.
- The audience is easily bored and wants constant novelty, but this novelty has to fit in with the preconceived notions of the individuals or they will not be able to relate. Ideas for the plot should therefore be similar to the ones the individuals have themselves experienced, but perhaps not had the courage to express.
- The audience desperately wants to believe that the make-believe is real.
It is no more merit in having read a thousand books than having ploughed a thousand fields.
My curiosity was too great for me to reflect on what I had read. So eager was I to put down the book and read another one.
It is not my business to judge, but to absorb whatever I can of it, like an amoeba absorbing a particle foreign to its body, and what I cannot assimilate has nothing to do with me.
No reading is worthwhile unless you enjoy it.
The Summing up, W. Somerset Maugham