“Always do right. This will gratify some people & astonish the rest.”
On Monday and Tuesday I made a quick trip to Minneapolis and took that drive time to listen to the CD of Mark Twain produced by Ken Burns, Geoffrey and Dayton Duncan (based on the PBS special) and I was reminded what character Twain was.
He was born Samuel Clemens in Florida, MO just about 40 miles west from Hannibal, MO where he spent much of his youth and would serve as his inspiration for some of his books and stories. (An interesting side note is Florida, MO is less than 100 miles away from Marceline, MO where Walt Disney spent part of his youth.)
He took his name from his days as a steamboat pilot. “Mark twain” was a term used to signify deep water and therefore safe passage for steamboats. My guess is he just liked the sound of it. In the days before the civil war there were 1,000 steamboats moving up and down the Mississippi. Must have been quite a sight to see. Twain once wrote that the most beautiful sunset he ever saw was in Muscatine, Iowa—a city on the Mississippi River in south east Iowa.
Twain’s first paid job as a writer was for a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa. (Keokuk is 60 miles up the Mississippi River from Hannibal. He would go on to write Tom Sawyer & Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator and many other books. William Faulkner said of the humorist and novelist, “Mark Twain was the first truly American writer, and all of us since are heirs…I call him the father of American literature.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
By the time Twain was 50 years old he was the richest and most well known writer in the world. At a time when the average American made $500 a year, Twain was spending $30,000. a year on just maintaining his Connecticut home.
By the time he was 60 he was bankrupt. He had decided that he was going to go from rich to really rich by investing in a new printing press that would revolutionize the industry. The invention failed.
Twain went back to speaking and writing to pay off his huge debt. At one point later in his life he considered himself a failure. And the man known for his humor also experienced much pain in his life. His father died when he was 12, he watched his brother die as a young man, his son died in infancy, two of his daughters died as young women, and his wife preceded him in death.
Twain relished his fame as much as the reported 40 cigars he smoked a day. That world traveled eccentric man— who often wore a white suit on the streets of New York City— would be a paparazzi’s dream today. If you’d like to get a taste of Twain’s talks check out Mark Twain Tonight, a one man presentation by Hal Holbrook.
And here are a couple quotes by Twain on writing that you may find useful:
“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together.”
“I wrote the rest of The Innocents Abroad in sixty days and I could have added a fortnight’s labor with the pen and gotten along without the letters altogether. I was very young in those days, exceedingly young, marvelously young, younger than I am now, younger than I shall ever be again, by hundreds of years. I worked every night from eleven or twelve until broad daylight in the morning, and as I did 200,000 words in the sixty days, the average was more than 3,000 words a day- nothing for Sir Walter Scott, nothing for Louis Stevenson, nothing for plenty of other people, but quite handsome for me. In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904) my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours.”
Autobiography of Mark Twain
Stephen King in his book On Writing says if you can write 1,000 words a day you can have a novel in three months. The same thing can be said if you just get a page a day done on a script. I find that many successful writers talk about things like page count, where less successful writers tend to talk about “being creative,” ”original,” and have a strong desire to “express themselves.”
P.S. If you happen to be between Keokuk, Iowa and Cedar Falls, Iowa tomorrow (4/7/11) you might want to make your way to Cedar Rapids to hear writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) speak at Coe College. (Free and open to the public.)
Postcard #7 (Mark Twain’s Florida)