Sowell on Writing
By Alberto Mingardi
Today is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. I am sure many celebrations of Sowell will be published. Not in Europe, I am afraid: in spite of his renown in America, Sowell is virtually unknown in Europe. I suspect this is at least partially due to his choice to concentrate on writing and to eschew conferences and public gatherings. He never got on the conference circuit, so to say.
It is a pity. Sowell is admirable for a number of reasons. His courage. His productivity. His work.
Style is another thing to admire Sowell for. He strove for it and told his experience with writings in a little essay, a few years ago. Here are a few passages:
Learning to write by trial and error not only calls for patience on the writer’s part, it also taxes the patience of wives, landlords, and creditors. Whenever someone, especially a young person, tells me of an ambition to become a writer, my heart goes out to him or her immediately—and my spirits sink. There is seldom a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, even for those who become established writers eventually—and a lot can happen between now and eventually, like broken marriages, eviction for non-payment of rent, and the like.
Even the mechanics or logistics of writing can be a challenge to figure out. Some of the most productive writers have followed the disciplined practice of sitting down at fixed times each day and turning out the words. Anthony Trollope followed this regimen in the nineteenth century and Paul Johnson with equal (or greater) success in the twentieth century. Alas, however, human beings differ and some of us are never going to be Anthony Trollope or Paul Johnson, in this respect or any other.
Instead of trying to be someone that you are not, be the best at what you are. My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say. The big disadvantage of this is that it can mean a lot of down time. There are manuscripts of mine that sat around gathering dust for years without a word being added to them. …
The big advantage of this off-beat way of working is that what I write is written when I am full of ideas and enthusiasm about the subject—even if these periods occur only at intervals, with months or even years in between for a given book. Some of my favorite books came from manuscripts that I thought would never get finished.
Now, I do not think that Sowell’s essay on writing – particularly his rant at copy-editors – will do particularly well for younger writers. But I read it as delivering three key messages: (a) writing is work, not a gift. This is clear to most people who somehow write for a living, but is typically unclear to everybody else. People tend to believe you are “good” at writing, as it is some sort of natural magic.
Yet, as virtually everything else in life, it needs exercises and constant practice. Sowell’s way of working is different than Ian Fleming, who purportedly wrote every day between 9 am and noon, in his Jamaican villa. Sowell’s way of practicing is certainly different than the one which may suit most of us, far less talented than he is: but even somebody as obviously talented need to practice and to work a modus operandi out; (b) finding your own voice is not easy. It may take years to finish a manuscript as you wanted or envisioned it. It may take more rewriting than writing. Your voice does not simply “come out;” (c) it is painful. Success in writing is a very relative thing (success for economic/political bloggers is different than success for novelists) but, with the exception of a few superstars (John Le Carré, J.K. Rowling, Paul Krugman…), you hardly find the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. If you really want to make writing (part of) your profession, start by forgetting that writing is easy.