In a letter written on April 3, 1855, legendary British author Charles Dickens explains to Mrs. Winter that his craft makes huge demands on his time and he must therefore politely decline many social invitations: “A necessity is upon me now — as at most times — of wandering about in my old wild way, to think. I could no more resist this on Sunday or yesterday than a man can dispense with food, or a horse can help himself from being driven. I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and sometimes, for months together, put everything else away from me. If I had not known long ago that my place could never be held, unless I were at any moment ready to devote myself to it entirely, I should have dropped out of it very soon. All this I can hardly expect you to understand — or the restlessness and waywardness of an author’s mind. You have never seen it before you, or lived with it, or had occasion to think or care about it, and you cannot have the necessary consideration for it. “It is only half an hour,” — “It is only an afternoon,” — “It is only an evening,” people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes, — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day. These are the penalties paid for writing books. Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go my way whether or no.”
In short, Dickens believed that a writer had to be very disciplined. In his own case, Dickens not only had to set aside enough time in his schedule to write when the muses inspired him, but he also had to make time to carefully study and ponder human nature. Biographer Fred Kaplan, who has written a highly-regarded biography of Dickens, shares a very illuminating story of when Henry James and Dickens met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867. Although terribly brief, their encounter was an epiphany in James’s life. He observed Dickens alone in a room and noted his aura of authority and discipline; James described the famous author’s look as a “merciless, military gaze.” Kaplan explains: “[James] realized that Dickens could get maximum amount of life out of the smallest experience. That, combined with his talent, was conducive to the creation of great art… James learned that the great artist has to use his energy in the most disciplined and ruthless way.” Like Shakespeare, Dickens had the instinctive ability to place humanity under a microscope — meticulously probing, dissecting, distilling, analyzing — to collect the fodder for his life’s work.
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