Since returning from Edinburgh, I've been reading a fine biography by Ian Bell of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author who grew up there. He heard what he called the "horrible howl" of the cold wind as it whipped the clouds and the gorse on the Pentland Hills, and he was motivated to get out of the place, to travel to warmer climes. I can see why.
But the old city with its narrow, cobble-stone streets remained in his imagination, even when he went to and wrote about London, Paris, Menton, San Francisco, Samoa or one of the other places he went, seeking the sun or freedom. Even in his early years, he carried a notebook and knew that to be a writer, he had to describe things. Like so many would-be authors of the past, he thought of himself as an artist in training.
Before seeking publication, the young RLS spent three years in his early twenties reading. He would study the style of the masters. He would imitate passages he liked, listening to their rhythm, and his own work underwent countless revisions until he was happy with the sound and tone of what he had written.
This traditional method of learning one's craft seems, sadly, out of fashion, yet it seems to me essential: how can anyone write unless he or she has read a lot, absorbing at a deep level the various types of sentence patterns writers use, considering how they describe and structure their work? When I tell my writing students that they can learn about writing not only by writing a lot but by reading, they are often surprised. They are too eager to leap into print; to wait three years is unacceptable to many of the wannabes I meet.
With his frail health, RLS must have known he would not have a long life, yet he could not send out his work until it was ready. He was willing to wait. And he wrote out of his pain and misery, trying to overcome the suffering of tuberculosis.
Reading, travel, and fever-induced dreams shaped his imagination and led him to become a recognized writer known throughout the world for his "strange case" of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as for Treasure Island and other tales.
Anyone who wants to write can learn a lot from the habits of other writers. Their patterns tend to be remarkably similar: reading, jotting down carefully observed description, and the daily discipline of re-writing. There is no easy path; writing is hard work. But the rewards are apparent as soon as one person reads and enjoys at least one short thing we have written.
As a side note, I am grateful to the many readers of this blog. Until yesterday, when I happened to check the stats on the past two years, I had no idea that 70 people in Russia had checked out these pages; that's more than in the U.K. or Canada. I was astounded that I have had readers (or viewers) in China, Kuwait, Latvia, Iraq and other places far from the USA.
I had thought my audience was essentially a handful of people, including two or three friends in Florida, who kindly left comments on the blog. I now feel part of the global village made possible by the Internet and Google.