Writer’s Desk: Pull It All Apart

In his Essays in the Art of Writing, Robert Louis Stevenson—born on November 13, 1850—showed little patience with the idea that writing was some ineffable and inexplicable transmission from the Muses. But he was aware that showing people, particularly non-writers, how the sausage is made, seemed to dismay them:

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.

There’s nothing wrong with dealing with the mechanics, of course. Without the strings and pulleys, a character can never get from Point A to B without losing the reader’s interest.

Stevenson went on:

I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

That’s what writers have to do: Pull the cart to pieces. How else can you be sure that it will run?

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