“Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one,” literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his fifteen-year old daughter in 1936. Sixteen years later, an aspiring young author, born in that year, called Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot – by that point one of the most famous writers in the world – in search of advice and guidance. The sixteen year old asked the poet who masterminded The Wasteland whether he could answer questions about the creative process, and – since nobody just “becomes” a writer – how he himself developed his poetic sensibilities and skills.
While Eliot was not known for responding to fan letters, something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His warm, wry response, full of writerly wisdom, may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet — a lovely and perhaps sadly forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Eliot’s response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.
Four years after he received the Nobel prize for literature, Eliot writes to the young writer:
Dear Miss Alice Quinn,
I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter.
I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.
My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.”
At one point in the letter, Eliot reflects on an accusation and criticism levied against the poet – that his work is elitist and exclusive. On this question, he reflects:
“I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.”
He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:
“One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics […] that is the right beginning.
I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.
With best wishes,
Complement T.S. Eliot’s timeless wisdom with some of our collected writing tips; for writers, from writers.