The Charlotte News



Morley Watches the Clock:

Of Time and the Writer

--Seconded by W. J.Cash

Site ed. note: For two other Cash articles on the writings of Christopher Morley, see "Bartlett's Quotations" - November 7, 1937 and "Chris Morley's Greeks" - December 5, 1937 (the latter being a review of the book mentioned at the beginning of this article).

Last week, I was reporting Mr.Christopher Morley as one of the most prolific writers at large in these states, but now comes along Mr. Morley himself to demonstrate that I don't know what I'm talking about. In a letter to F. P. Frazier of the editorial staff of J. B. Lippincott and company (Philadelphia), Christopher complains a little plaintively that though he is commonly set down for a fecund lad, it in fact commonly takes him just as long, actually, to produce any of his books as it took to produce his latest, "The Trojan Horse" which Lippincott will publish November 24--that is, a full seven years.

That interests me considerably, for I have long argued with Cam Shipp that no decent book could possibly be written in less than three years--and that most of them require from five up. To be sure, I was defending Jack Cash against the charge of indolence when I so argued, but also I was maintaining what seems to me to be the truth. Mr. Morley reports that what happens to him is that he comes down with what he takes for a brilliant idea, sits down and writes three or four pages, and that then

"something fades; what I usually think of as indolence (but it isn't really that) oppresses me, and I push the thing into the backward of my skull. Thereafter it intermittently despairs or delights me; most often while walking, or sometimes riding on a train, or in those rare and exquisite hours when there is nothing immediately urgent on hand. I find myself jabbering to myself about it. For a long while I get so low about it that I almost persuade myself it can or will never be done. Then something happens: I look again at the old dusty sheets, see that they weren't as bad as I feared; a little burning begins to run around the edges of the thought; and I set to.


"Almost invariably, when I have been secretly obsessed with a scheme and have long delayed it, I notice, about the time I actually get to work on it, that others have also been playing around the neighborhood of the same idea. This gives me a momentary pang, and I wonder why I postponed so long. But only for an instant, because everyone knows in his own heart, nothing, nothing in the world, has ever been done until you do it yourself."

Well and well, and how I do like and understand those lovely words from Mr. Morley! After this, Shipp shall be in his place. And for that I can forgive Christopher even that shift from "everyone" to "you." Probably Christopher erred a little--even for a man of his large list of books (his works were collected, I believe, somewhere in his thirties)--in ruling indolence utterly out. But indolence doesn't explain the fact that good books take time in the writing. (Morley has written a great many books that lack one hell of a lot of being "good" as he'd probably be the first to admit).

What does explain it, then? What is this thing which happens which Mr. Morley is talking about? I think that there is no great difficulty about understanding it. Any man who has any notable writing capacity writes, as Remy de Gourmont long ago argued, out of the subconsciousness. He cannot in the least, tell you when he sets down associations of ideas and word patterns which merit the title of good--he cannot in the least tell you how he did. They simply came to them, so far as he can tell, and quite often he is as utterly astonished as the most astonished of his acquaintances that this piece of knowledge or that word arrangement was in him at all.


That being so, it would be too much to expect that a book should leap from him whole. What happens is that an idea emerges to the surface of his brain or more often has dropped into it from the outside. An idea sets in motion a train of associations, and words. But these associations and words are almost invariably only the most obvious associations and words. The flame burns only as a match burns, not as a coal-fire in winter. The idea is as yet really only a sort of nucleus, a core. Drop it back into the unconscious depths and it will gradually gather unto itself this piece of knowledge and that idea, moving outward in an always widening circle, the bulk of the whole growing always steadily greater. Then one day, a period will be reached, a stage will be complete, and suddenly the thing will begin to transform itself into word patterns. The man can write at great length and with the most astounding ease (it is from this fact that the notion of the great poet who dashes off an epic poem in a day has arisen), and what is more, he feels that what he is writing is right and just--that he is saying exactly the thing that he has known dimly all long he wanted to say.


After that, again, as likely as not, if the book runs to any great length, there will be other periods when the idea must once more fall back into silence--when the curious human brain must be left to work with the thing as he wills. The writer may, indeed, be able to force himself to write something, and even something which will not seem bad reading, but all the time you will have the sensation that that is only a fragment of himself which is speaking, that he is failing utterly to say the things he actually feels and thinks about his theme. And what is more, the critics are likely in the end to think and feel the same thing. The business simply cannot be hurried. The rate of growth in each man varies widely, to be sure, but always for a good book the period of gestation must be allowed for. That, I think, was about what Mr. Morley meant.

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