Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mark Twain On Style, and Writing with a Pen versus Typewriter

Mark Twain Autobiography, p. 224

"Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traveled an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

"With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections."


  1. Notice that first paragraph of Twain's: it has exactly THREE sentences. How many modern readers have the patience or attention span to get through that, much less appreciate its imagery and elegance?

  2. Given how well the most recent edition of his autobiography sold, one hopes quite a few. Depressing to think all his private thoughts went unfinished, then pilfered, then published, then purchased and unused.

    In another way? Quite nice, though.

  3. I really do hope we're at the beginning of a rebirth of interest in his work.

  4. I was totally into Twain's comments and I agree with what he has to say about the flow of narrative.

  5. Nice. Thanks Cathy! I'm trying to learn from him.