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xi ...... P reface R obert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the late nineteenth century, an era of mass readership and literary celebrity. Stevenson was and was not a part of that world. He didn’t seek publicity, but he never turned away interviewers, fellow artists, or autograph-­ seekers. He wasn’t a close confederate of London’s literary elite, and he wrote for the market; yet he held himself to the highest professional standards. Probably the least petty, least competitive author of his generation, Stevenson was unusually open to literary collaboration, even when he suspected it could damage his reputation. Always supportive of young writers, he delighted in offering advice and encouragement; but he was honest about the sacrifices required for success. Stevenson was celebrated as a brilliantly epigrammatic writer and a master stylist, yet he was perfectly willing to revise or condense his work. He routinely read drafts aloud to his family to get their feedback, which he always respected (he even burned the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde when his wife objected to it). An American publisher recorded, with some surprise, that Stevenson “was not handicapped by the superstition that his copy was divine revelation and that his words were sacrosanct.”1 In his letters, Stevenson could carry on about his ideas and plans for books with both enthusiasm and candid self-­ doubt. He celebrated when he got paid, but he refused payment when he felt his work was not his best. Stevenson was also a perceptive literary critic whose capacity for reading xii ...... was almost superhuman. He admired, and he judged. But he never belittled. Stevenson tried his hand in virtually every genre: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, travel writing, and drama. He had a vagabonding nature and seemed game for anything, despite chronic ill health. Though he was a well-­ educated gentleman, he wore collarless shirts and loose jackets because he thought he’d be more likely to pursue an adventure if he weren’t worried about his clothes. For adventure was Stevenson’s idiom. “I have been after an adventure all my life,” he wrote in 1879, “a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers.”2 His writing and his life were braided together by this theme of hopeful voyaging , of eventfulness. ...... In an essay on the elements of style in literature, Stevenson cautioned that he was about to embark on the “distasteful business” of demystifying the artist’s craft. “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.” He thought that to talk about the mechanics of writing was like “taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back,” or “pulling the musical cart to pieces” like a curious child.3 Yet as a consummate technician and professional man of letters, Stevenson liked nothing better than gossiping about how writers handled literary problems. He was, in fact, always prying below the surface, looking on the back of the picture, indulging a meddling curiosity about literary nuts and bolts. He had taught himself to write by studying the methods of great writers, and he felt that he had much to teach others. But he also understood that no art could xiii ...... be explained diagnostically to any aspirant, whether professional or amateur. If it could be, it wouldn’t be art. There are both “conscious and unconscious artifices,” he wrote— rhythms and harmonies that “lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man.”4 In this book, I have tried to balance the springs and mechanisms with the emotional and the mysterious parts of literary writing, as RLS practiced it. Thus I Lived with Words ...


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