“Every novelist must begin by creating for himself a world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe.” ~ Joseph Conrad
We all have a manuscript lying about in various stages of “unfinished”. Some are close to done with an ending just out of reach. Most are just fragments of characters or scenes stillborn on a handful of pages. Yet, nothing except the belief of the writer can bring these ideas to their eventual conclusion.
A writer must believe.
A writer may spend years looking for their belief. They may start and stop time and again. Many travel or undergo hardships and forge their beliefs from painful or exalted experience. Others look deep into the souls of fellow writers, drinking in their words and sifting through the dregs for the core of their own beliefs.
Then, there are those who scarcely trust that they exist at all except for the fact that they rise each day and move through the world. They do not feel alive nor do they wish for the grave. They pine for silence. They pray for belief, which is a foolish prayer that will go unanswered.
Yet, to achieve something singular and important, a writer must believe.
Conrad was 16 years at sea before retiring and taking up the pen. He wrote from what he knew and what he knew was the sea. He wrote from experience. He was a writer believed in the world because he had seen much of it with his own eyes, but even still he knew that a writer’s role was to peel back the layers of what appears to be and show something more.
That is the task, but also the reward.
“Where a novelist has an advantage over the workers in other fields of thought is in his privilege of freedom–the freedom of expression and the freedom of confessing his innermost beliefs–which should console him for the hard slavery of the pen.” ~ Joseph Conrad
Find Your Belief
It is true that each writer struggles in their own way to find their craft. We pick up bits and pieces from those who have come before us or we slavishly imitate those we admire. We struggle to find the meaning and the belief that is so apparent in the books we hold dear.
After all, there they are!
Books bound in paper or cloth, leather or electrons. Their very physical presence in the world demonstrates the indisputable belief of one mind forging a story, striving for connection with another person through the craft of writing.
And yet, finding belief is the most difficult task a writer faces. It isn’t the words or the style. It isn’t the dreary pace of pages piled day after day. The real challenge is finding the belief to press forward. When we have that on our side, the work itself becomes secondary to all else.
Here is perhaps the simplest answer to finding belief:
“Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life.” ~ Joseph Conrad
If we are to write we must believe in ourselves, because books are reflections of who we are and what we have experienced as human beings. To believe in your story or your work is to be at your most fragile and human self.
If this is not enough, I turn to Joseph Conrad’s thoughts of Stephen Crane, the author of Red Badge of Courage.
One day Mr. Pawling said to me: “Stephen Crane has arrived in England. I asked him if there was anybody he wanted to meet and he mentioned two names. One of them was yours.” I had then just been reading, like the rest of the world, Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I was truly pleased to hear this, and on my next visit to town we met at a lunch.
I saw a young man of medium stature and slender build, with very steady, penetrating blue eyes, the eyes of a being who not only sees visions but can brood over them to some purpose. He had indeed a wonderful power of vision, which he applied to the things of this earth and of our mortal humanity with a penetrating force that seemed to reach, within life’s appearances and forms, the very spirit of life’s truth. His ignorance of the world at large–he had seen very little of it–did not stand in the way of his imaginative grasp of facts, events, and picturesque men.
But this stirring rendition of one author’s appreciation for another is not why I shared this with you. Rather, it is just an opening to the second part of the story…
I saw Stephen Crane for the last time on his last day in England. It was in Dover, in a big hotel, in a bedroom with a large window looking on to the sea. He had been very ill and Mrs. Crane was taking him to some place in Germany, but one glance at that wasted face was enough to tell me that it was the most forlorn of all hopes. The last words he breathed out to me were: “I am tired. Give my love to your wife and child.” When I stopped at the door for another look I saw that he had turned his head on the pillow and was staring wistfully out of the window at the sails of a cutter yacht that glided slowly across the frame, like a dim shadow against the grey sky.
Life is short and brutal. You must find your belief or watch as your visions are washed away beneath the waves. You must believe in your work and press forward.
A writer must believe. Do you?
6 thoughts on “Jospeh Conrad – A Writer Must Believe”
Brilliantly written. I never thought about writing in terms of belief before. I guess we do have to believe in the worlds we write about in order to convince the reader that they’re real for the space of the book. This must be why writers tend to be crazy. Believing in myself is something I’ve always had trouble with. Some days I think I’m awesome, and others I think I’m the worst writer ever and everything I write is trash.
There’s just one thing that’s bothering me. The line where you talked about books being bound in “leather or electrons.” The “or” there doesn’t make sense. Electrons are in everything, including leather. Unless you’re saying that it’s possible to bind a book in only electrons. I don’t think you could, but it would make your book shocking. Get it? Shocking? Okay, the chem major is shutting up now.
How timely this is for me, as I woke up this morning with a little stumble in beliefs about my writing. This post has given me the momentum to press on today! Thank you!
LOVELY post! Thank you for this. I flucutate in believing in my ability to write. I have to remind myself of how far I’ve come and accepting that while at the same time looking for ways to improve. A tough balance to maintain, but crucial, in my opinion.
@Jennifer True enough. Everything is made of electrons… Well, except for exotic quantum fluids, but let’s leave that for another time, shall we? 🙂 Thanks for the kind words though! Keep writing. Everyone thinks their work is trash, even the “best of the best”.
@Karen Glad I could help! This post was kind of hard to write. I wrote it because I was feeling a belief deficit myself and then I let it sit. When I came back to it, I suddenly found myself charged up and pulled it together from the wreck of “trash” it seemed to be. [whispers] See, Jennifer! [/whispers]
@Laura We all have days like that, Laura. Well, if we’re lucky they’re only days! For some writers, it’s years or even decades.
Thank you for this, very inspiring. I try to have confidence in my own work, but its hard to get to the place where you can believe in your manuscript no matter what any one else says. But I think its important. Again, thank you.
(my creative writing blog)
I enjoyed that… I was introduced to Joseph Conrad through The Heart of Darkness (HOD) in a lit class in college about 1993. Our professor was obsessed with Conrad and knew this book inside and out. He could probably have written the damn thing if locked in a room with a notebook computer and word.
Conrad’s descriptions of people and places are so different… so brilliant, that I immediately appreciated him. The themes he wove into HOD made my head spin. My professor knew them ALL and it was fascinating to watch him get so emotional over revealing them to us. Damn, I just remembered my professors name – Thomas Moore. Don’t know how that came to me…
Heart of Darkness makes you believe that place really exists. It is only so because it DID exist for J Conrad – it fully existed in great detail in his brilliant mind because he believed in the story enough to write that great book.
I’m going to think a lot about belief in the story… you gave me a lot to think about here!