Mark’s Musings #1: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Writing Method

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The Remington Standard Typewriter No. 7 here on my desk was a state-of-the-art writing-machine at about the time RLS died in 1894 at the age of 44.  I love its look.  The “7” was manufactured in the 1890s and early 1900s with steel and brass, solid as a brick, weighing 30 pounds.  It inspires me to think of writers such as “Louis” Stevenson and Mark Twain who, after a short period of reluctance and skepticism, embraced what now looks like a clunky relic as an exciting way to increase output and earnings.  More than 100 years old, mine still types, but even after giving it lots of oil it is a real workout to write with the thing.  Typists in the 1890s turned out 60 or more words per minute on these beasts, with 100 wpm logged in the hugely popular typing competitions that drew large audiences in the early 1900s. 

What amazes me is how much quantity as well as quality Stevenson produced during most of his career, when he wrote with just a fountain pen.  Altogether he turned out more than 10,000 published pages — and think of how much more he must have written that did not get into print — most of it written before typewriters.  By far his best known and best-loved works, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde were handwritten before being set in type and published, all three of them by 1886.

 How he did it was simple: by harnessing the unconscious and doing lots and lots of work.

In his essay, “A Chapter on Dreams,” RLS claimed that his unconscious did “half the work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself.”  His wife, Fanny, later wrote how Louis drafted The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “with great rapidity” after waking “in the small hours of one morning” from a dream that supplied him, in vivid detail, with the plot and characters.  When he had finished and showed it to her, she was so upset that she wrote him a detailed critique to the effect that his dream had “obscured” his chance to use the story as a “great moral allegory.”  In a fit of either rage or agreement with Fanny’s assessment (the interpretation depends on which family memoir one reads of the incident), Louis set the manuscript ablaze and turned it into “a pile of ashes on the hearth of the fireplace” when Fanny left the room.  Subsequently, and thankfully for readers since, Louis sat down, took out a fresh notebook and wrote an entire new version of it from scratch.

This brings up the second part of Stevenson’s method: hard work.  His almost offhanded claim that his unconscious and dreams did most of the heavy-lifting is not consistent with his well-documented, slavish work habits.  He once said in a letter, “Nobody had ever such pains to learn a trade as I had, but I slogged at it, day in, day out; and I frankly believe (thanks to my dire industry) I have done more with smaller gifts than almost any man of letters in the world.”  Stevenson was schooled in law rather than literature, and decided to be a writer a century or so before the existence of the “How to Become a World Famous Novelist in Just One Weekend” workshops that seem to have sprouted up all over the world like toxic mushrooms. 

One technique he used, that I dramatized in Stevenson’s Treasure, was to laboriously copy, in longhand, pages upon pages of published work of his favorite writers.  “Whenever I read a book or passage that particularly pleased me,” he once said, “I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality…..  I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann.”  Clearly, aping the technique of his writing heroes by absorption, through the feel of the fingers and pen as he scribed the words, gave RLS’s writing a huge boost.  It is a technique that has been recommended by many writers since, including the popular historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell.  Give it a try!


4 Comments

  1. tyra young

    Did RLS have a (suit)case for his typewriter when he traveled? If so what does it look like? Is it monogramed? Thank you~

    • markwiederanders

      Interesting question. I could find no reference in RLS’s letters to traveling with his typewriter, or to a case. He used a typewriter somewhat later in his career (especially when he was in Samoa, when his stepdaughter Belle helped him with typing and correspondence), and given the size and weight of those early typewriters it was most likely stationary. M.W.

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