Jack London Wanted to Mentor You

So once upon a time the writer of Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, White Fang, and tons of other books and stories was just another guy who wanted to write. Here’s his view of what he did to make himself into something more:

Call of the Wild: Jack London’s Advice on Honing Your Creative Craft – by Scott McDowell

Sometimes its hard to know where to start. In John Barleycorn, Jack London’s vivid memoir, he describes a predicament familiar to many an aspiring artist: “My difficulty was that I had no one to advise me. I didn’t know a soul who had written or who had ever tried to write. I didn’t even know one reporter.”

While much of Barleycorn is a grim warning about the slow train of alcoholism, the book also feels like an act of mentorship. Throughout, London describes his approach to being a writer, imparting a wealth of wisdom on building a career and body of creative work.

Not surprisingly, London’s work ethic was formidable. Here are a few gems of insight that I uncovered:

1. Be decisive, choose something, then attack it.

“I decided immediately to embark on my career. I had four preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic and political essays, and, fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing…

“I wrote, I wrote everything…. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from the passionate outpouring in order to eat…”

2. Be persistent, endure struggle, and hone your craft.

“The trouble with the beginner at the writing game is the long dry spells, when there is never an editor’s check and everything pawnable is pawned.

“I struggled along, stood off the butcher and the grocer…and I worked…. At the end of three working years, two of which were spent in high school and the university and one spent at writing, and all three in studying immensely and intensely, I was publishing stories in magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, was correcting proofs of my first book…, was selling sociological articles to Cosmopolitan and McClure’s, had declind an associate editorship proffered me by telegraph from New York City, and was getting ready to marry.”

3. Develop a routine and be relentless about it.

“As I succeeded with my writing,… I confined myself to writing and typing a thousand words a day, including Sundays and holidays; and I still studied hard, but not so hard as formerly… There was so much to learn so much to be done, that I felt wicked when I slept seven hours…”

4. Settle into a groove and make the act of creating part of your life.

“The program of my ranch life was as follows: Each morning, at eight-thirty, having been reading or correcting proofs since four or five, I went to my desk. Odds and ends of correspondence and notes occupied me till nine, and at nine sharp invariably, I began my writing. By eleven, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later, my thousand words were finished. Another half hour cleaning up my desk, and my day’s work was done…”

Read it all

Jack London died at 40, possibly by suicide. His life wasn’t perfect, but on the how-to-be-a-writer front, the man knew his shit.

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