I have a yellowed smoke attacked copy of Sir Quiller-Couch’s tome, On The Art of Writing. It was first published in 1916 and I own the “new edition” of 1943, still a rather long time ago.
The “On the Art Of Writing” is out of print, and I can see why. It is a hard slog to get through as it is also a collection of Couch’s essays and talks at Cambridge. You have to muddle through a tremendous amount of writing dedicated to addressing his students at the time. But once past that, there are gems to be discovered. He is the source of ” murder your darlings. ”
Sir Quiller Couch was born in Cornwall and wrote several works of fiction, verse, criticisms, anthologies, and his autobiography. He used the pen name Q. Many of the great writers all give him credit to their becoming distinguished writers of their time, Helen Hanff, John Mortimer, Alister Cook, and more. He was Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University until his death, 12 May 1944. A formidable man, eccentric by nature and possessor of great knowledge of which he shared in his lectures and writing.
In “On the Art of Writing” Sir Quiller -Couch writes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his 1769 lecture to his students at the Royal Academy about the practice of copying art from the old masters. Reynolds does not give them a list of how the great masters worked, what brushes they used, how they ground their paint, or how to be like them, and as for “copying” the great masters as a way of learning how to be an artist, Quiller writes, “He comes down like a hammer on them.”
Reynolds in his lecture does leave us with a the key to success in art.
“ The more extensive your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your power of invention.”
“Your Power of Invention.” This thought I find fascination and have to agree that the more you study great art and writing, and the more you practice, the greater your power will be to create original art. It is a fascinating concept that still holds true to today. The practice of reading great writing, and even the practice of imitation will lead with continued hard work to original creation. For the endless words, the hours of practice will become so ingrained that writing which once a foreign language, is now learned and totally assimilated into every cell of the body, so that when it comes to writing something original, it will come forth freely and without any sense of pretence.
So old Quiller, I will put your musty old book back on the shelf of my library and give you a quick nod of agreement.
” It amount to this- Literature is not a mere Science, to be studied: but an Art, to be practised. ” Sir Arthur Quiller Couch