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"Are Sidelines Helpful?" from Writer's Year Book and Market Guide

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Writer's Year Book and Market Guide
Are Sidelines Helpful?
by Ellis Parker Butler

Will Rogers is an important humorous writer, he also does a vaudeville stunt, acts in the motion pictures, talks over the radio, and has acted on the legitimate stage. Now and then he talks at a banquet for pay. I saw Will Rogers on the vaudeville stage before he had any humorous chatter except four or five words when his lasso did not behave for him. What he said was "Maybe you donít think so, but I did that trick once," and we all laughed.

Chic Sale wrote The Specialist and it had the largest sale of any humorous book ever published, I imagine. He has a vaudeville stunt, acts in reviews and is -- or will be -- in the movies.

These two men, extremely different in most respects, are real humorists. Both now do daily humor bits for syndicates. They are not writers with sidelines. They are men who, doing something else, discovered in themselves strains of humor, and put some of their humor into written form. Writing, with them, is the sideline.

Irvin S. Cobb gave us his humor from a different point of departure. He wrote humor, then did some lecture work, and at this moment is doing some radio talking. Cobb would say, I am sure, that writing is his profession, and that these other matters are sidelines with him. Robert Benchley is a writer; his vaudeville stunts are sidelines. We have any number of writers now who follow writing as a profession but do some lecturing on the side, or have some other face-to-face, eye-to-eye or mouth-to-microphone sidelines.

The question I am asking is whether sidelines of any sort are helpful to the writer?

The four men I have mentioned have in them natural wells of the sort of comicality we call humor. Will Rogers discovered his almost by chance, Chic Sale developed his intentionally, Irvin Cobb came upon his as a newspaper writer; I havenít the slightest idea how Benchley discovered his, but all four of these men have the natural actor in them. Cobb telling a story is a real comedian; Benchley is another. For all of these men the personal public appearance means increased prestige. Their sidelines are probably helpful. Rogersí and Saleís writings increase their audience; Cobb and Benchley make new admirers whenever they appear personally.

But for every writer who can increase his prestige in this way we have many who can not. The common remark after a humorist has ended a radio talk is "Well, heís not so funny as I thought he would be." There is such a thing as showmanship, and not many of us have it. Mark Twain and Bill Nye had it, but many others donít.

Occasionally, as a means of making easy money, the best writers have tried a sideline for awhile. Thackeray, for instance, made an American lecture tour, as did Dickens, and as are many present day English writers. Mark Twain always lectured, notably when he made his tour around the world after his book-publishing firm failed. But it should be noted that all these men were well-known -- famous, indeed -- and that many paid money to see them much as they would have paid to see a two-headed calf. The average writer is neither a two-headed calf nor furiously famous nor as amusing as Clemens, Cobb or Benchley when appearing otherwise than in print.

I have myself done lecture work. I was successful enough, I think, for most of my "dates" wanted me to return. My agent gave me all the dates I could fill. I was paid a high price, as prices ran. I gave it up because I found, at the end of a couple of years, that my total income was just about the same as when I remained at home to write. When I lectured I wrote less. When a man lectures he has many long jumps by train, finds himself in uninspiring hotel rooms, must go to teas and accept other hospitalities, and he is in no condition to do his best writing. Often he has time to do none.

Every sideline takes some of the writerís time and energy. A writerís whole capital is his brain, and when his brain is doing one thing it cannot be doing something else. If a man has a certain time for writing -- say from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. -- and customarily relaxes in some way after that, it is evident that if he undertakes another form of work in his relaxation hours he will be less fit when he comes to his writing again. His proper work, which is writing, suffers. He must be a giant of energy if this is not to be so, and I believe Cobb and others who can do so many various things well are such giants. They are exceptions; most of us are not.

Writing is, for most of us, an ample job. It is all we can handle, and it is bad for us to look through the fence at the attractive grass in the next pasture and then try to be in both pastures at once. If we try to eat in both pastures at once we do a worse job than if we stuck to one thing and gave it all our attention.

The writer should stick to his writing. I donít like the verb "to specialize" in connection with writing, but I know no word that so nearly expresses what I would advise the writer to do. The fiction writer should write fiction; the historical writer should write history; the humorist should write humor. His theme may demand magazine or book treatment, but whatever the treatment he should not swerve aside to do something that seems at the moment more attractive.

In my opinion, no writer for the press should undertake to write scenarios for movies or radio use. They are separate professions; they require a specially developed technique. Write your story or your book, and if radio wants it let radio do the scenario; if the pictures want it let the producer make the scenario. If you feel you must write a play do not let it interfere with your proper writing. Do it at night or in spare hours; it is better still to let a real dramatist share with you, he doing the actual dramatization. Dramatization is an art in itself; you will be better employed doing your regular writerís work.

A writer becomes a writer when he picks up his pen or seats himself at his typewriter, but becoming an author is a different story -- if you will accept my definition of an author for the moment. Let me say that an author is a writer who has created for himself a recognized place in whatever form of literature he has attempted. This need not be the heavyweight position of a Thackeray, a Balzac, a Howells or an Anatole France. It may be the position of an Alice Duer Miller or a Ben Ames Williams or a Corey Ford or any well-recognized writer in any field. He may be a writer of sentiments for Christmas cards. But an Alice Duer Miller should not fiddle with writing sentiments for Christmas cards -- and Iíll wager she doesnít.

The writer becomes an author -- in the above meaning -- by doing the work he has chosen to do and excluding other forms of writing from his schedule. Life is very short, a day is gone almost before it has started, a year goes into the past and the most a writer has written cannot be much in quantity. To build himself a position as an author a man must make every dayís work a brick in the structure -- and it is surprising how soon the accumulating bricks make a recognized wall if a man does keep true to his chosen plan.

It is the accumulating effect of good work consistently done that establishes a writer and makes his fame and income secure. There is nothing good in jumping from one thing to another, trying this and that, dropping a brick here and a brick there. At the end of a year you have nothing built; in fact, your reputation suffers. Not with editors alone, but with life itself and you yourself.

I would like to point out that Mr. Kipling would have gained nothing by knocking off to do an advertising booklet, to write a scenario, to do six radio-play synopses or to go on a lecture tour. Kipling wrote Kipling stuff.

I donít mean to urge any writer to "specialize" to the extent of writing only "pulp magazine" material or only "coated-paper magazine" material, but I would have writers write, at least until they are so famous that they can lecture with the knowledge that people will pay to see -- rather than to hear -- them. I would urge writers -- particularly those who are rather new at the work -- to follow one easily recognized road, the road to be of his own choosing. Shaw, for instance, is known worldwide as the social cynic; Barrie is similarly known for his sentimental charm; Wells for his scientific-political bravo; Mencken for his criticism. The humorist who puts forth a solemnity puzzles the audience he has been creating for his humor; the writer of charming love tales tears down his foundations when he indulges in a cynical essay.

Although all this has a direct and recognizable effect on the writerís market, I am not thinking of that as much as I am of the long-trend happiness and satisfaction of the writer. The happy man is he who sees his public coming to recognize him as true to a definite purpose. "Trying something new" is not all it is cracked up to be. Readers, including editors, like to feel that certain men may be trusted to give them certain things. We like the wren to sing and we do not expect or want it to croak. Particularly we do not want a wren that sings most of the time and croaks when we least expect it. We donít want our apple trees to bear apples one season and dried codfish the next. Out in California they can graft trees so that they bear half a dozen different fruits, but all the favor is still for the tree that bears one kind only and makes a good job of it.

A writer should not try to engage in half a dozen professions. A writer should not try to write two or three varieties of literature. There are no sidelines that benefit the writer half as much as they injure him. When you think of Cobb or Benchley or the few very exceptional writers who do try sidelines and who do succeed in them, just look through the magazines and the bookshops and notice how vastly many more writers do not have sidelines. Notice how many of the successful writers are notable for long-trend faithfulness to types of writing they can do best and how completely they leave other types alone. And then -- I wish you could -- count up the hundreds of men and women who tried to write forty-seven different kinds of things and are now warming bookkeepersí stools or selling ladiesí garments.

When a sideline comes creeping up on you and whines like a puppy to be taken under your wing -- as it will -- take it by the neck and throw it seven miles. Eight miles. Anyway, get rid of it.


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