So, recently I dipped into and then read Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour. This book appeared on my coffee table, which sometimes happens when my mother thinks I ought to read something. I never have time to read anything (or so it seems lately), but nonfiction is good when I don’t have time to read fiction, so as I say, I dipped into this sort-of-memoir and then wound up reading most of it. It’s not exactly memoir, though it has elements of memoir. The emphasis of the book is very much on the books L’Amour read during his life, particularly his early life, before he became a successful author. Spoiler: he read a lot of books.
I’ve never read anything by L’Amour, as far as I can remember. I’ve read some Westerns, as my dad reads Westerns among other things, and I dimly recall trying something of L’Amour’s at some point, but I guess I didn’t like it? Or not enough to seek out more of his work? It was a long time ago and I don’t remember.
But I have to say, reading this memoir-ish thing has made me much more interested in his fiction. Wow, what a life! Plenty of travel, plenty of adventure. I’m going to have to try something of his. He’s got a historical set in the 12th Century — The Walking Drum. I think I’ll try that. I know I don’t want to even look at an enormous series, so I’m not trying the Sackett family series. I’ll pick up a sample of some standalone Western … there.
Meanwhile, a few quotes from Education of a Wandering Man. This is a selection of brief comments and paragraphs that particularly caught my eye as I read the book.
Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.
I totally agree. I’ve learned more about history from historical fiction than from history classes, mostly because the fiction is so much more memorable.
Most of what I attempted [to write] at the mine were short stories, but unhappily I did not even know what a story was, although I believed I did. They were mostly pieces of narration without drama or anything else to recommend them. I was, however, trying. And I was putting words together, learning to shape my thoughts into something worth reading.
One is not, by decision, just a writer. One becomes a writer by writing, by shaping thoughts into the proper or improper words, depending on the subject, and by doing it constantly. There was so much I needed to learn that could only be learned by doing, by sitting down with a typewriter or a pen and simply writing. Most young writers waste at least three paragraphs and often three pages writing about their story rather than telling it. This was one of the many things I had yet to learn.
Ideas are all about us, in the people we meet, the way we travel and how we think about things. It’s important to remember that we are writing about people. Ideas are important only as they affect people. And we are writing about emotion. A few people reason, but all people feel. The raw material is not important. It is what the writer does with the material.
Often I am asked if any writer ever helped or advised me. None did. However, I was not asking for help either, and I do not believe one should. If one wishes to write, he or she had better be writing, and there is no real way in which one writer can help another. Each must find his own way, as I was to find mine.
The above caught my eye because of the vast number of questions on Quora like this:
“I’m beginning a science fiction novel. How should I start my novel?”
“I want to write a series, but where should I start?”
“I have an idea for a scifi book, but am having trouble formulating it. How can I begin without sounding cliché?”
“How do you write in the pov of the antagonist?”
“How do I write the beginning of a romance into my story without it feeling forced?”
And so on and on. I’m sure some people manage to answer questions like that in a helpful way. Well, I’m not that sure. I don’t see how any advice could possibly be helpful. I don’t even try. I can’t think of anything to say to questions like that except, “By doing it. If you want to see how it’s done, open up a dozen novels that you think do a pretty good job at whatever you’re trying to do and see how those authors do it. No one can tell you how to do this! There’s no secret tip! Stop asking people how to do stuff and open up your word processor and take a stab at it!” I don’t know whether that would be helpful or not, but that’s the only advice that makes sense to me. That’s why this comment from L’Amour really struck me.
So did this:
My way may not be for anyone but me. In fact, I doubt it is. After many rejections, I sat down on the porch one night where I worked, looking off through our growing plum trees, and decided that all the editors who rejected my work could not be mistaken. Something was basically wrong with what I was doing. … From my shelves, I took several stories by O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Jack London, and Conan Doyle. From popular magazines, I took several that I had liked, and I settled down to study them, to see what those writers were doing that I was not.
Finally, let me quote one passage of description. I see from various Amazon reviews that L’Amour’s writing is often noteworthy for description. No wonder.
When the icy winds sweep down from the peaks of that most mysterious of mountain ranges, the Kuen-Lun, the camel-dung fires blaze up briefly, then smolder and smoke, and the dust of thousands of years stirs along what was once the Silk Road from China to the West. The voices around the fire grow still, and men listen into the night for the passing of ghost caravans traveling to ghost cities lost in the Taklamankan.