Some (Not So) Ancient Advice on Writing

“It has been too long since I picked up a book or a pen . . . . The pressure of business has brought my writing to a complete stop.”

That complaint might have been voiced by any of us who try to write in whatever time we can snatch from our jobs or other responsibilities. But the quotation is from Pliny the Younger, who lived and wrote in Rome ca. 100 AD. He’s a figure I’ve studied for years and, more recently, have enjoyed turning into an amateur sleuth in a series of mysteries. The fifth, The Eyes of Aurora, will be out in September from Perseverance Press.

Pliny (rhymes with Minnie) the Younger was a lawyer and government official, following in the footsteps of his uncle and adoptive father, Pliny the Elder. Like his uncle, he carried out a variety of official duties, but in his letters we find that he considered himself “devoted to literature” and begrudged every minute spent doing anything other than reading or writing. One of his biggest complaints about government work was having to write “unliterary letters.”

By the time he was thirty Pliny was considered one of the best writers of the day. His letters, available today in paperback or online, are really short essays on various topics. His account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD is a classic text for vulcanologists. (The elder Pliny died during that disaster.) Pliny’s letter about the Christians is the earliest and most valuable non-Christian description of the church that still survives.

Scattered throughout the collection, however, are Pliny’s observations on the craft of writing. He shows us how little the writer’s problems and aspirations have changed over the centuries.

Writing must be a fulltime job, Pliny says, even if you earn a living doing something else. The elder Pliny was a challenging example to his nephew. He got up before dawn to write. He read and made notes during meals, while traveling, even during his bath. The younger Pliny learned from his uncle. He took notebooks along on hunting trips so that, if he (his servants, actually) failed to catch anything, he could still utilize the time and the inspiration of the countryside. In one letter we find him at his desk during the Saturnalia (the Roman equivalent of Christmas/New Year). In another he refuses to waste time at the chariot races. (I substitute “television” and find the advice uncomfortably applicable to myself.) For Pliny, his literary activity “brings me joy and comfort. It increases every happiness and consoles every sorrow.”

Pliny’s advice on writing is not merely theoretical. He suggests a kind of training regimen to increase a writer’s productivity:
• Keep yourself physically fit. “It is amazing how physical activity sharpens one’s wits,” he says in one letter. In another he mentions “the exercise which makes my intellect ready for work.”
• Write passages on subjects that others have written on, then compare yourself to them. This is a basic technique used in some modern writing courses (and is a standard method of producing TV programs and movies).
• Revise things you wrote earlier. This will “rekindle your fire.” It might also result in a sale, as I learned when I revised and sold a piece I had written five years earlier and put aside after a couple of rejections.
• Try writing in different genres. In Pliny’s words, “the ground is renewed when planted with different kinds of seed.” My own writing career—if that’s not too pretentious a term—began with a number of non-fiction articles in newspapers and magazines. Then I took a stab at writing stories for children’s and women’s magazines. Not only did I enjoy some success in those fields, but I found that everything else I wrote benefited from the emphasis on plot development and characterization in those genres. For Pliny, “this is the principle which permits me to mingle my more sober works with amusing trifles.” He wrote speeches, essays, even smutty poetry (none of which survives).
• Read, especially in your primary field of interest. “A writer must read deeply, not widely,” Pliny advises.
• Persevere. Pliny shames all of us who have an unfinished novel in the bottom desk drawer when he says, “If you don’t finish the work, it is the same for posterity as if you never started it.”

Such is Pliny’s philosophy of writing on the large scale. He also has advice on handling a work in progress.

First, keep your focus. “I consider it a writer’s primary responsibility to read his title, to constantly remind himself what he started out to say, and to remember that he will not say too much if he stays with his theme.”

Second, be certain your style is appropriate to the type of piece you’re writing. In one letter Pliny refuses to write history because at the moment he is working on some speeches, and he doesn’t want to risk mixing the two genres, “for fear that I’ll be carried away in the confusion and treat one genre in a style more fitting for the other.”

Third, accept criticism and revise. This is one of the most frequent themes in Pliny’s letters. He sent copies of his works to friends or read things to them and asked for criticism. In one letter he describes how he supplied desks and writing materials so his listeners could make notes while he read them a piece he had written. In another letter he sends a piece to a friend, confessing that he is thinking of publishing it, “if only you give me a favorable reply.” He expects to receive, and promises to give, honest critiques to fellow writers: “my sting may be duller than usual, lacking some of its sharpness, but it has not been completely pulled out.”

Pliny and his friend, the historian Tacitus, exchanged manuscripts for critique. One of Pliny’s letters accompanied the manuscript he was sending back to Tacitus with his suggestions on it. What we wouldn’t give to have a copy of Tacitus with Pliny’s marginal notes!

Revision can be overdone, though. Pliny tells one friend to stop revising his book and publish the thing. “Your book is finished, I would even say perfect. Further revision won’t polish it. All it will do is dull the finish.” He tells another friend, “I’m glad that you go to so much trouble in revising your work, but you must put a limit to this. In the first place, too much polishing blurs the outline instead of sharpening the details, and then it . . . prevents you from starting on a new piece.” That’s a point I’ve tried to make with a couple of people in my writers’ group.

Pliny shows us vividly that the difficult process of writing has changed little in two millennia, no matter how much the technology surrounding it has improved. He would feel at ease, I think, having coffee with a group of modern writers and talking about our craft. One question that would inevitably arise would be, If it is so all-consuming a thing to be a writer, why do we do it?

For Pliny the answer wasn’t money. Like most of us, he never made money from his writing. (They didn’t even have royalties in those days.) But he found the self-satisfaction which law and politics couldn’t provide. He was gratified to learn that his books were selling as far away as southern Gaul. People stopped him on the street and said, “You’re Pliny, aren’t you?” I still recall with pleasure the day my first article appeared, while I was in graduate school. Another student in one of my classes turned around and asked, “Are you the Mr. Bell who writes for the Christian Century?”

Pliny would also say that immortality can only come from creating something which outlives us. Without getting metaphysical he advises his friends that they don’t know what lies beyond death. Only by publishing something can they “leave behind some monument to prove that we ever lived.”

Pliny’s letters brought him the immortality he hoped for. And they have much to teach modern writers about the fine points of their craft. They show us that writers, in any time period, are ultimately seeking the same objective, which Pliny summed up in this challenge: “Create something. Perfect it so it will be yours for eternity.”

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3 Responses

  1. Albert, this is THE best essay on writing I’ve ever read! And to think it was ancient Pliny who gave all this excellent advice. I’m blown away! Exercise and revision (though it can be overdone) and sharing with writerly friends…and so on. It’s as though Pliny were writing this today on our PP blog. I’m going to mention this essay to other groups–download it if I can for a Vermont writing group I facilitate. And then read your books! Thank you for this. I’m about to go out and take a walk–and then get back to my writing.

  2. Nancy, this is why I find it so easy to write Pliny as a detective. He is, in many ways, a modern man. He published his own letters, so he must have edited them and had an audience in mind, but he is still one of the most knowable people from antiquity. Enjoy your walk, and then get to work!

  3. Thanks, Albert–a fascinating study. I was particularly interested to hear of Pliny’s “writer’s groups.” And to know that he considered physical exercise useful to writers.

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