Mark Twain Offers Sage Advice to Young Writer in Famous Letter Up for Auction

Posted on September 5, 2018

A famous letter by Mark Twain offering writing advice is up for auction. The 1881 letter is from Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) to a young 21-year-old writer named Bruce W. Munro. In the letter, Twain offers some sage advice on writing he has learned over the years.

In the letter Twain explains how experience and knowledge is required to write a great book. He tells the young writer that only a "colossal genius" could write a readable book before age 30.

Twain writes, "Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted ... I don't see how any but a colossal genius can write a readable prose book before he is 30 years old. Such books have been written, but never by any but gigantic geniuses-like those Bronte sisters, for instance. And yet even they ... had a capital of experience to draw from which was nearly as prodigious as their genius. Moderate talent can produce a readable book at 30 or 40, after a good, honest, diligent pains-taking apprenticeship of 15 or 20 years with the pen ... You will have to produce and burn as much manuscript as the rest of us have done before your mill will yield something that is really worth printing. Ours is a trade which has to be learned-there is no getting around that requirement...."

Mark Twain was working on his famous novel Huckleberry Finn at the time he wrote the letter. He notes in the letter that writing it pulled him away from his work.

Twain says, "I would not wound you for the world; but if I have nevertheless done it, you have your revenge, since I have sacrificed my day to you: for he that desires to do the best work he can, doth not put a part of his day's steam in to a letter, first, and then work with a three-quarter head of it on a book afterward, you know."

Twain ends the letter writing: "I have been frank: one has seldom a right to be otherwise, but I have been far from meaning to be harsh."

He signed the letter S.L. Clemens. The letter will be auctioned by Bonhams in New York City on September 25, 2018. It is expected to sell for up to $50,000. Bonhams says the letter is "one of the most exciting and important Twain letters, as well as one of the most profound articulations of the writer's art, ever offered at auction."

Image: Bonhams

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