The Charlotte News
Sunday, March 15, 1936
Ah, Helen Knows Why
By W.J. Cash
Site ed. note: This article affords a rare glimpse into Cash's thoughts on the process of writing and its tenuous route to riches and glory. Is the last line a tale-teller of the heart as to his own motivation? No one will ever know but Cash.
Anybody who practices the trade of writer for any considerable period of time comes soon or late to asking himself soberly how in the name of all that is rational a grown man could ever be so witless as to engage in such a business--and to booting himself at great length for not taking to something sensible, useful, and comfortable, like being a college professor or horse jockey. \par \par It is the custom, of course, for men of all trades to curse their work, and to announce that if his son Willie ever shows any signs of following in the paternal footsteps, they'll resort to the family axe. It is so with doctors when they have been routed out of bed at three A.M. to preside at the entry from Heaven of a new potential President. It is so with lawyers when they fall to reflecting on the dingy brown stink that hangs over all court rooms and on the ignominy of mouthing servile "your honors" to the old sourpuss on the bench when what they actually crave to do is to yell imputations of canine extraction and paste him in his snout. It is so with plumbers weary of smelling the drains, with bookkeepers down with mogiographia, with clergymen despairing of hell--with actors and carpenters and con men. And I remember with terror to this day the warnings issuing from the elder members of the faculty when I once upon a time briefly and ingloriously set up for a college instructor. Nor have I forgotten, either, the baleful picture of my future drawn by the city editor who took me out to coffee my first day in a newspaper shop.
None the less--. For all the sad old humor perpetrated about these trades and others like them, for all the quite real griefs that are involved in all of them, one can still find immediate and solid reasons why men of good sense should take to them. But writing--well, look at the thing. \par \par The poor boob who follows it has to be his own boss--and after a fashion that few other men have to endure. He has to hoist himself out of the sheets when the alarm goes off, not with the immediate effective stimulus that the Old Man will fire him if he's late to duty, and not with the lure of that stenographer he hired yesterday or the mere delight of giving orders--not with any of the motives which operate for normal men, whether bossed or bosses--but simply with naked will. And once out of them, he has to work without that human companionship--that sitting or standing shoulder to shoulder with others which makes work endurable. No pause while Bill at the next desk tells you the one about the Jew and the policemen's daughter, no rhythmic swing of bodies against a rope, no wisecracking with the man who is going to buy your goods, no necking of the gal in the outer office while you wait for an appointment--nothing. Nothing but a recalcitrant typewriter staring you coldly in the eye, a blank and ominous sheet of paper requiring implacably to be filled if you are going to eat, and four naked walls--for the unfortunate usually has to strip his workroom bare if he is to avoid escaping into daydreams.
But the work? Ah, the beautiful work! The glorious surge of power? The triumphant fulfillment of function! The joy of creation! The high glory of having a daimon! Rats, my dear little readers (I am speaking to both of you), rats, all the rats of Hamlin Town. About once in every 30,000 words or so, it is indubitable, you do wake up to find yourself waxing wet-eyed and palpitant over your own remarkable eloquence--but said experience has taught you that that is precisely the passage the editor is sure to blue pencil. And as for the rest, drudgery--and such drudgery as makes you invent excuses to go out and shovel the coal into the cellar and, though you hate gardening, wield a hoe industriously. A reeling and a staggering among illimitable forces without order or reason. An eternal groping for that infernal jack-in-the-box idea or word which pops up in the back of your head, leers contemptuously at you, and ducks out of sight again before you can grasp it. An incessant and frenzied wrestling with problems the solving of which gives you no such lift as the solving of a mathematical problem since you always feel that there were infinitely better ways to solve them if only you had had any brains. \par \par Well, the high rewards remain? High? Once in awhile there is a Sinclair Lewis among the writers--and of course there are the highly paid tripe manufacturers. But these are extremely exceptional. Theodore Dreiser, the most important American writing man alive, testified in a New York court some years ago that he had never made more than $3,500 a year until he published "The American Tragedy" in his late fifties. A banker of similar competence in his field would have made a million, a lawyer half a million, and the doctors do not do much worse for themselves. Even the college profs and the clergymen of the upper grades come in for $12,000 or more. As for the less incompetent plumbers, I never heard of one who didn't have a Rolls Royce.
Sense of achievement? It is far less concrete and certain than the doctor who has helped the new squaller into this vale of woe, the lawyer who, if he is in doubt, can go look at his victim writhing in the jug, the banker observing the face of the man to whom he has just declined to lend money, less concrete and certain even than that of a parson who has just done his best for a defunct deacon. The unhappy writing soul, in truth, is usually haunted by very dark suspicions that the whole business is pointless and worthless.
Why does anybody do it, then?
For one reason, probably, because he is emotionally still an adolescent. He usually has wit enough to know, in his sober moments, that what is called glory is mainly baloney, and that, as a matter-of-fact, it is not pleasant to be stared at. But his endocrines stopped working too soon, or maybe the kid next door punched him in the mouth when he was five. Anyhow, his affective machinery is still under the influence of the fantasies of grandeur which are common to all adolescents but which more sensible men throw off as they mature; and so is driven willy-nilly to pursue what he is well aware is a chimera. `
For another reason, he is virtually always incompetent for anything else. From Lewis and Dreiser down, the record is one monotonous story of having tried everything in sight and having been invariably fired as entirely otiose.
But I suspect the best reason of all is that one the French know so well. I suspect that nearly every jack caught in the thing is there ultimately because in his moon-calf youth some creature in skirts sicked him into it on the ground that it was necessary if he was to be considered available husband material, kept him there until it was too late for him to retreat, and then, having demonstrated her capacity as a Helen and done her duty to literature, quite reasonably married the nearest wholesale grocer or barber.
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