John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 26
Having burned my ship, I plunged into writing. I am afraid I always was an extremist.
Early and late I was at it--writing, typing, studying grammar, studying writing and all the
forms of writing, and studying the writers who succeeded in order to find out how they
succeeded. I managed on five hours' sleep in the twenty-four, and came pretty close to
working the nineteen waking hours left to me. My light burned till two and three in the
morning, which led a good neighbour woman into a bit of sentimental Sherlock-Holmes
deduction. Never seeing me in the day-time, she concluded that I was a gambler, and that
the light in my window was placed there by my mother to guide her erring son home.
The trouble with the beginner at the writing game is the long, dry spells, when there is
never an editor's cheque and everything pawnable is pawned. I wore my summer suit
pretty well through that winter, and the following summer experienced the longest, dryest
spell of all, in the period when salaried men are gone on vacation and manuscripts lie in
editorial offices until vacation is over.
My difficulty was that I had no one to advise me. I didn't know a soul who had written or
who had ever tried to write. I didn't even know one reporter. Also, to succeed at the
writing game, I found I had to unlearn about everything the teachers and professors of
literature of the high school and university had taught me. I was very indignant about this
at the time; though now I can understand it. They did not know the trick of successful
writing in the years 1895 and 1896. They knew all about "Snow Bound" and "Sartor
Resartus"; but the American editors of 1899 did not want such truck. They wanted the
1899 truck, and offered to pay so well for it that the teachers and professors of literature
would have quit their jobs could they have supplied it.
I struggled along, stood off the butcher and the grocer, pawned my watch and bicycle and
my father's mackintosh, and I worked. I really did work, and went on short commons of
sleep. Critics have complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin
Eden, achieved. In three years, from a sailor with a common school education, I made a
successful writer of him. The critics say this is impossible. Yet I was Martin Eden. At the
end of three working years, two of which were spent in high school and the university
and one spent at writing, and all three in studying immensely and intensely, I was
publishing stories in magazines such as the "Atlantic Monthly," was correcting proofs of
my first book (issued by Houghton, Mifflin Co.), was selling sociological articles to
"Cosmopolitan" and "McClure's," had declined an associate editorship proffered me by
telegraph from New York City, and was getting ready to marry.
Now the foregoing means work, especially the last year of it, when I was learning my
trade as a writer. And in that year, running short on sleep and tasking my brain to its
limit, I neither drank nor cared to drink. So far as I was concerned, alcohol did not exist. I
did suffer from brain-fag on occasion, but alcohol never suggested itself as an
ameliorative. Heavens! Editorial acceptances and cheques were all the amelioratives I
needed. A thin envelope from an editor in the morning's mail was more stimulating than