So I’m reading Michael Slater’s new biography of Charles Dickens. (It has very, very small print, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. It is a little trying on the eyes, though.) Slater focuses on Dickens as a working writer. The guy worked, then worked some more, then did some work. Nothing but work, work, work like the proverbial dog–from his youth until he worked himself to death in his 50s. As Simon Callow put it a tad more gracefully in his Guardian review of the book,
There are times in Michael Slater’s indispensable new biography when one simply has to close the book from sheer exhaustion at its subject’s expenditure of energy. It’s like being sprayed by the ocean. Even Dickens was astonished at it: “How strange it is,” he said, “to be never at rest!”
I have been thinking about what a working writer can learn from Dickens. In some ways, he exists outside the ring of people whom you can usefully emulate. First of all, he’s Charles Dickens. Nobody else can be Charles Dickens, just like nobody else can be Shakespeare or Tolstoy.
How about Dickens as a cautionary tale, then? You could learn a thing or two from Mr. D. about the dangers of overwork (e.g., exhaustion, death) and about how not to treat wives and publishers. (Dickens was not always fair or kind to either.) Then there’s story Slater tells of the artist who had the original idea for what became the Pickwick Papers, which helped launch Dickens into the literary stratosphere of Victorian England. The illustrator, whose name eludes me at the moment, struggled all night over an illustration that Dickens didn’t like, then walked out into his garden in the morning and shot himself through the heart.
And yet, and still–Dickens knew how to sit down and write, and he must have loved it to do as much of it as he did. He was never content to have one project in hand; he needed two, or three, or seven. Journalism, sketches, novels, plays, operettas: He wrote them all and could rotate among genres as he liked or needed to. He always had room for another idea, and another, and another, and he made room in his schedule for a staggering number of them. Dickens’s energy and his commitment to the act of writing, his ability and desire to do it over and over again, every way he could think of–these are things that a writer can take heart in. Why not love your ideas? Why not spin them into stories the best way you know how? Why not try to do more instead of less? Just be nice to your publishers and your loved ones in the process. And get some rest, for heaven’s sake. No need to work yourself to death. But you do have to do the work. And that’s part of the joy.