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The Literary Regimen


At the risk of offending the young beginner's illusions, he must be
reminded of one or two homely but important facts bearing upon literary
production. Homely as they are, they explain much that is at first
puzzling. This perplexing question of distinction; the quality of being
somehow _fresh_--individual. Really it is a perfectly simple matter. It
is common knowledge that, after a prolonged fast, the brain works in a
feeble manner, the current of one's thoughts is pallid and shallow, it
is difficult to fix the attention and impossible to mobilise the full
forces of the mind. On the other hand, immediately after a sound meal,
the brain feels massive, but static. Tea is conducive to a gentle flow
of pleasing thoughts, and anyone who has taken Easton's syrup of the
hypophosphites will recall at once the state of cerebral erethrism, of
general mental alacrity, that followed on a dose. Again, champagne
(followed perhaps by a soupçon of whisky) leads to a mood essentially
humorous and playful, while about three dozen oysters, taken fasting,
will in most cases produce a profound and even ominous melancholy. One
might enlarge further upon this topic, on the brutalising influence of
beer, the sedative quality of lettuce, the stimulating consequences of
curried chicken; but enough has been said to point our argument. It is,
that such facts as this can surely indicate only one conclusion, and
that is the entire dependence of literary qualities upon the diet of the
writer.

I may remind the reader, in confirmation of this suggestion, of what is
perhaps the most widely known fact about Carlyle, that on one memorable
occasion he threw his breakfast out of the window. Why did he throw his
breakfast out of the window? Surely his friends have cherished the story
out of no petty love of depreciatory detail? There are, however, those
who would have us believe it was mere childish petulance at a chilly
rasher or a hard-boiled egg. Such a supposition is absurd. On the other
hand, what is more natural than an outburst of righteous indignation at
the ruin of some carefully studied climax of feeding? The thoughtful
literary beginner who is not altogether submerged in foolish theories of
inspiration and natural genius will, we fancy, see pretty clearly that I
am developing what is perhaps after all the fundamental secret of
literary art.

To come now to more explicit instructions. It is imperative, if you wish
to write with any power and freshness at all, that you should utterly
ruin your digestion. Any literary person will confirm this statement. At
any cost the thing must be done, even if you have to live on German
sausage, onions, and cheese to do it. So long as you turn all your
dietary to flesh and blood you will get no literature out of it. "We
learn in suffering what we teach in song." This is why men who live at
home with their mothers, or have their elder sisters to see after them,
never, by any chance, however great their literary ambition may be,
write anything but minor poetry. They get their meals at regular hours,
and done to a turn, and that plays the very devil--if you will pardon
the phrase--with one's imagination.

A careful study of the records of literary men in the past, and a
considerable knowledge of living authors, suggests two chief ways of
losing one's digestion and engendering literary capacity. You go and
live in humble lodgings,--we could name dozens of prominent men who have
fed a great ambition in this way,--or you marry a nice girl who does not
understand housekeeping. The former is the more efficacious method,
because, as a rule, the nice girl wants to come and sit on your knee all
day, and that is a great impediment to literary composition. Belonging
to a club--even a literary club--where you can dine is absolute ruin to
the literary beginner. Many a bright young fellow, who has pushed his
way, or has been pushed by indiscreet friends, into the society of
successful literary men, has been spoilt by this fatal error, and he has
saved his stomach to lose his reputation.

Having got rid of your digestion, then, the common condition of all good
literature, the next thing is to arrange your dietary for the particular
literary effect you desire. And here we may point out the secrecy
observed in such matters by literary men. Stevenson fled to Samoa to
hide his extremely elaborate methods, and to keep his kitchen servants
out of the reach of bribery. Even Sir Walter Besant, though he is fairly
communicative to the young aspirant, has dropped no hints of the plain,
pure, and wholesome menu he follows. Sala professed to eat everything,
but that was probably his badinage. Possibly he had one staple, and took
the rest as condiment. Then what did Shakespeare live on? Bacon? And Mr.
Barrie, though he has written a delightful book about his pipe and
tobacco, full of suggestion to the young humorist, lets out nothing or
next to nothing of his meat and drink. His hints about pipes are very
extensively followed, and nowadays every ambitious young pressman smokes
in public at least one well-burnt briar with an eccentric stem--even at
some personal inconvenience. But this jealous reticence on the part of
successful men--you notice they never let even the interviewer see their
kitchens or the débris of a meal--necessarily throws one back upon
rumour and hypothesis in this matter. Mr. Andrew Lang, for instance, is
popularly associated with salmon, but that is probably a wilful
delusion. Excessive salmon, far from engendering geniality, will be
found in practice a vague and melancholy diet, tending more towards the
magnificent despondency of Mr. Hall Caine.

Nor does Mr. Haggard feed entirely on raw meat. Indeed, for lurid and
somewhat pessimistic narrative, there is nothing like the ordinary
currant bun, eaten new and in quantity. A light humorous style is best
attained by soda-water and dry biscuits, following café-noir. The
soda-water may be either Scotch or Irish as the taste inclines. For a
florid, tawdry style the beginner must take nothing but boiled water,
stewed vegetables, and an interest in the movements against vivisection,
opium, alcohol, tobacco, sarcophagy, and the male sex.

For contributions to the leading reviews, boiled pork and cabbage may be
eaten, with bottled beer, followed by apple dumpling. This effectually
suppresses any tendency to facetiousness, or what respectable English
people call _double entendre_, and brings you _en rapport_ with the
serious people who read these publications. So soon as you begin to feel
wakeful and restless discontinue writing. For what is vulgarly known as
the _fin-de-siècle_ type of publication, on the other hand, one should
limit oneself to an aërated bread shop for a week or so, with the
exception of an occasional tea in a literary household. All people fed
mainly on scones become clever. And this regimen, with an occasional
debauch upon macaroons, chocolate, and cheap champagne, and brisk daily
walks from Oxford Circus, through Regent Street, Piccadilly, and the
Green Park, to Westminster and back, should result in an animated
society satire.

It is not known what Mr. Kipling takes to make him so peculiar. Many of
us would like to know. Possibly it is something he picked up in the
jungle--berries or something. A friend who made a few tentative
experiments to this end turned out nothing beyond a will, and that he
dictated and left incomplete. (It was scarcely on the lines of an
ordinary will, being blasphemous, and mentioning no property except his
inside.) For short stories of the detective type, strong cold tea and
hard biscuits are fruitful eating, while for a social science novel one
should take an abundance of boiled rice and toast and water.

However, these remarks are mainly by way of suggestion. Every writer in
the end, so soon as his digestion is destroyed, must ascertain for
himself the peculiar diet that suits him best--that is, which disagrees
with him the most. If everything else fails he might try some chemical
food. "Jabber's Food for Authors," by the bye, well advertised, and with
portraits of literary men, in their drawing-rooms, "Fed entirely on
Jabber's Food," with medical certificates of its unwholesomeness, and
favourable and expurgated reviews of works written on it, ought to be a
brilliant success among literary aspirants. A small but sufficient
quantity of arsenic might with advantage be mixed in.

H.G. Wells