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On Writing Oneself Out
by [?]

Lord Beaconsfield once compared his opponents on the Treasury Bench to a line of exhausted volcanoes. They had taken office when they were full of mighty aspirations; they had poured forth measures of all sorts with prodigal vigour; and at last they were reduced to wait, supine and helpless, for the inevitable swing of the political pendulum. A similar process of exhaustion goes on among literary men; and there are certain symptoms which cause expert persons to say, “Ah, poor Blank seems to have written himself out!” I have occasionally alluded to this most distressing topic, but I have never discussed it fully.

The subject of brain-exhaustion has a very peculiar interest for the public as well as for the professional penman; half the slovenly prose which ordinary men use in their correspondence is due to the bad models set by written-out men, and the agonising exhibitions made by some thousands of public speakers in this devoted and long-suffering land are also due to the purblind weakness of the exhausted man. The wrought-out writer is not permitted to cease from work; he goes on droning out his fixed quantity of mortal dreariness day by day and week by week until his mind spins along a particular groove, and he probably repeats himself every day of his life without being aware that he is anything but brilliantly original. I am obliged to study many novels, and I know many most successful workers who at this present time are turning out the same fiction under varied names with monotonous regularity. They are not quite like an old hand whom I knew long ago, who used to promote the characters in novelettes of his own and turn them on to the market again and again; the effusions of this genius were not of sufficient importance to attract attention from folk with clear memories, and I believe that he escaped detection in a miraculous way. His untitled country gentleman became a baronet, the injured heroine was similarly moved up on the social scale, and the noble effort came forth with a fresh name, while the knowing old impostor chuckled in his garret and pouched his pittance. I believe the funny soul has passed away; but really there are many very pretentious persons who do little more than vary his methods unconsciously. Poor James Grant delighted many a schoolboy, and perhaps his best work was never quite so much appreciated as it ought to have been. “The Black Dragoons,” “The Queen’s Own,” and “The Romance of War” all contained good work, and many gallant lads delighted their hearts with them; I know that one youth at least learned “The Black Dragoons” by heart, and amused the people in a lonely farm-house by reciting whole chapters on winter nights, and I have some reason to believe that the book gave the boy a taste for literature which ended in his becoming a novelist. But, as Grant went on with machine-like regularity, how curiously similar to each other his books became! Narvaez Cifuentes, in “The Romance of War,” is the type of all the villains; the young dragoons were all alike; the wooden heroines might have been chopped out by a literary carpenter from one model; the charges, the escapes, the perils of the hero never varied very much from volume to volume; and the fact was obvious that the brain had ceased to develop any strikingly original ideas and only the busy hand worked on. A very sarcastic personage once observed that “it is better for literary men to read a little occasionally.” To outsiders the advice may seem like a piece of grotesque fun; but those who know much of literary work are well aware that a writer may very easily become possessed by a sick disgust of books which never leaves him. He will look at volumes of extracts, he will skim poetry, he will read eagerly for a few days or weeks in order to get up a subject; but the pure delight in literature for its own sake has left him, and he is as decidedly prosaic a tradesman as his own hosier. Such a man soon joins the written-out division, and, unless he travels much or has a keenly humorous eye for the things about him, he runs a very good chance of becoming an intolerable bore. He forgets that the substance of his brain is constantly fading, and that he needs not only to replenish the physical substance of the organ by constant care, but to replenish all his dwindling stores of knowledge, ideas, and even of verbal resources. Among the older authors there were some who offered melancholy spectacles of mental exhaustion; and the practised reader knows how to look for particular features in their work, just as he looks for Wouvermans’ white horse and Beaumont’s brown tree. These literary spinners forget the example of Macaulay, who was quite contented if he turned out two foolscap pages as his actual completed task in mere writing for one day. He was never tired of laying in new stores, and he persistently refreshed his memory by running over books which he had read oftentimes before. The books and manuscripts which Gibbon read in twenty years reached such an enormous number that, when he attempted to form a catalogue of them, he was compelled to give up the task in despair; he was constantly adding to the enormous reservoir of knowledge which he had at command, and thus his work never grew stale, and he was ready instantly with a hundred illustrative lights on any point which chanced to crop up either in conversation or in the course of his reading. The cheap and flashy writer is inclined to disdain the men who are thorough in their studies; but, while his work grows thin and poor, the judicious reader’s becomes marked by more and more of richness and fulness.