Johnson and writing

I’ve gotten to the part in Boswell’s Life of Johnson where Johnson is writing twice-weekly essays published as The Rambler.  This is what Boswell says about it:

The first paper of the Rambler was published on Tuesday, the 20th of March, 1749-50; and its author was enabled to continue it, without interruption, every Tuesday and Saturday, till Saturday the 17th of march, 1752, on which day it closed. This is a strong confirmation of the truth of a remark of his, which I have had occasion to quote elsewhere, that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it;” for, notwithstanding his constitutional indolence, his depression of spirits, and his labour in carrying on his Dictionary, he answered the stated calls of the press twice a week from the stores of his mind, during all that time…

I like the idea that you can write at any time, if only you really set your mind to it. Although I’ve never done much creative writing (defined narrowly as fiction or drama or poetry) and don’t know if I’d get writer’s block trying to do it, I’ve done a good bit of other kinds of writing — letter writing, course-paper writing, dissertation writing, blog writing, email writing, administrative report writing — and tend to agree with Johnson that the words will come if I just “set myself doggedly to it.” I’m not a writer’s block sufferer. In fact, for me, there’s nothing so pleasurable about writing as sitting down with pen and paper or a computer having little idea of what I will write and watching ideas come to me as I start to work. Which is not to say that Johnson’s feat of writing essays twice weekly for so long isn’t remarkable, but that I can see why he would want to do it and why, with that attitude, he’d do a good job of it. Well, being a genius had something to do with it too, of course.

The Boswell passage makes me think that blogging is a little like writing periodical essays — perhaps not always with Johnson’s brilliance (in my case, never with Johnson’s brilliance): it’s about producing a public piece of writing on a regular or semi-regular schedule, which means, if you do follow a schedule, even a loose one, you are privileging regularity over inspiration. One of the reasons I’m attracted to blogging and why I’ve come to love it so much is the regular productivity it requires, inspiration or no.

And, as a blog-reader, there’s nothing I love more than a regular feature on someone’s blog, poetry Friday, say, or Stefanie’s Saturday Emerson post, or Danielle’s daily book chat. There’s something very reassuring about knowing writers are out there who will produce words regularly. I would have eaten up Johnson’s twice-weekly essays if I’d lived then.

However, this passage about Johnson’s writing habits does not strike a chord with me:

Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed. It can be accounted for only in this way; that by reading and meditation and a very close inspection of life, he had accumulated a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, which, by a peculiar promptitude of mind, was ever ready at his call, and which he had constantly accustomed himself to clothe in the most apt and energetic expression.

Oh, for some of that “promptitude of mind”!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Writing

14 responses to “Johnson and writing

  1. LK

    Great post! Amen to everything, Dorothy! I like regular features, too, and although I get quivers and shakes when I write fiction, it’s necessary to sit down to get the words flowing.


  2. Another wonderful post, Dorothy. I agree with your comments as well. It is much more difficult for me to get started writing creative fiction than anything else. Your thoughts reminded me of one of the first writing books that I read as an adult, which is still a favorite- Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write.

    Forgive me for the lengthy quote in a comment, but here is a paragraph from the book regarding inspiration, and is similar to your comment about writing if you set your mind to it. Brenda does think that sometimes the inspiration may take a while, but..

    “Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly. Say that you want to write. Well, not much will come to you the first day. Perhaps nothing at all. You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out of the window and begin to brush your hair absentmindedly for an hour or two. Never mind. That is all right. That is as it should be, -though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper, sooner or later. And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”

    A couple more quick ones that I really like- “Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express.” And- “Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.”


  3. Cam

    to set himself doggedly to it. Well, isn’t that some quote! I know in my bones that Johnson was right about this. Yet, I cannot hold myself to a schedule of regular blog posting. I thought about it as a writing goal for this year but once I decided to do it, it was as if I had just had an immoveable 20-foot concrete wall placed in my path, a Berlin Wall of writing, so to speak. It probably even came with armed militia in guard towers, strategically placed to keep any words from escaping, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I jettisoned the idea and ran for freedom.

    I think I’m actually posting more now that I decided not to feed the committment to a regular schedule. I admire Johnson that he could do it; likewise you for your daily posts, Stephanie for her weekly Emerson, Danielle for her regular comfy posts that are like putting on your jammies and drinking a spot of tea before bed, and all other bloggers who post as regularly as clockwork. But I can’t do it, no matter how doggedly I’d try.


  4. I hear you about those quivers and shakes, LK — I feel them sometimes too, not with blogging but with academic writing. Yikes.

    Thanks for the quotation Brad! It seems like wonderful advice — putting in your time at the desk or computer whether you’re actually writing or not is so important.

    Cam — funny you should mention posting more now that you don’t have a regular schedule because I found that the moment I wrote about not posting daily anymore I was flooded with ideas for posts and have posted almost daily since. I have taken some days off, but I’ve found that backing off the regular committment freed me up to write more. Have I just contradicted everything I said in my post? Maybe. No, I’m committed to posting regularly, just not necessarily every day. I’ve gone to a looser posting schedule but still it’s pretty regular. Your Berlin Wall of writing image is wonderful!


  5. I think if I had to be really creative in my writing, I am not sure I could do it every day. Being chatty is pretty easy (I am not big on conversation, so I guess I save it up and it has to come out somewhere), though I am not sure how “inspired” my writing is. Sometimes I think you need to have the pressure taken off your shoulders (like your regular, though not necessarily daily posting). Once you know you’re not tied down to something, I think inspiration comes more easily. That’s pretty amazing Johnson could write in haste and not even proof read–oh to be that talented.


  6. I do think Boswell would hav been an excellent blogger!


  7. Actually I meant to put Johnson – sorry, it’s still early in the morning for me, here! But on reflection, they’d both have been great – the Stefanie and Danielle of their day!


  8. Emerson would agree with regular writing too, concentration and routine, that’s the way to do it. When I try creative writing I can’t seem to establish any kind of regular habit, but by golly, I can’t miss a blog post. If I am late to sit down at my computer I start to get jittery. And, like you, I love the times when I sit down with nothing to say but find something to say anyway. The results of those times are rarely, if ever, brilliant, but they are satisfying. I wonder if Johnson’s ability to throw something together last minute is deceiving? He might be one of those people who have it all composed in their heads beforehand so when he sat down he was just doing a final edit as he copied it out of his memory.


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  10. Super post. I am slowly going through the Life as well, but you’re much further along. I hope it remains great.


  11. Oh dear, I am a frequent disrupter of self-imposed “regular” writings. Poetry Friday, shifts to Poetry Saturday, and Lit journal Thursdays are out-of-whack. I’m not very good at the disciplined writing I’m afraid, but I hobble along as I am able.


  12. Like Brad, Brenda Ueland sprang to mind as I read what you’d written. I’ve decided I have absolutely no control over my writing. I THINK I’m in control, doing things like announcing to myself that I have to write at least twenty minutes every day (doggedly), but I happen to know that if I don’t do this, I become quite depressed, so it’s really more like a medicine I have to take in order to feel my best (same with book reading. Must do a little of it everyday). For whatever reason, though, writer’s block is a very rare problem for me. And I agree with Litlove about Johnson and Boswell and blogging.


  13. Danielle — well, I’m not sure everyone would find being chatty so easy! It’s interesting that you say you’re not big on conversation — I didn’t picture you that way, although it does make sense that the talking would get out in another way, if not in regular conversation. Wouldn’t they, Litlove? Boswell’s journals are quite interesting. You’re right Stefanie, Johnson might have been one to compose in his mind. I’m getting my information from Boswell, who tried hard to be accurate but didn’t get the full picture, obviously. And he looks up to Johnson so much. Thank you Edwardhenry! I hope you continue to enjoy the book. Imani — you seem to be a very regular poster, even if you don’t keep to all your “theme days.” Your “hobbling” is quite impressive! Emily — that’s an interesting point, that we might not be as in control as we think.


  14. Brandon

    I could’ve sworn I left a comment on this post the other day. Maybe I heard my boss and had to close the window I initially tried to comment. Ah well. I don’t remember what I’d written, except that I’m like Stefanie in that I can’t miss a post. And I said something about how I compose most of my posts when I’m walking. I can’t write when I’m at the computer.


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