Flaubert to Guy De Maupassant, and just as useful today:

One of the first lessons was devoted to the question of originality. “If you have any originality,” Flaubert told him, “you must first dig it out. If you don’t have any, you must get some.” To help him acquire some originality, Flaubert set his student a task. He was to choose something ordinary and familiar — “a blazing fire or a tree in a plain” — and then search for the “unexplored” element in it. According to Flaubert, even the commonest thing contains something that no one has noticed, “because we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them.” Next, Maupassant recalled, “he forced me to describe, in a few phrases, a creature or an object so that it was clearly distinguishable from all other creatures or objects of the same race or species. “

Homework consisted of a practical exercise: observe a grocer on his doorstep, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-horse in a row of cabs, and then, “with a single word,” show how that particular grocer, concierge, or cab-horse resembles no other. That single word — a verb or an adjective — existed somewhere in the language, and it was the writer’s job to find it, no matter how long it took. “One should never be content with approximation; one should never try to avoid the difficulty by resorting to subterfuge — even if it fools the reader — or to linguistic trickery” (“des clowneries de langage“).

A good definition of cliché: ‘seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them’!


4 thoughts on “Writing lessons with Flaubert

  1. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi Court, thanks for visiting. I will also have a look at your blog.

  2. Court 15 years ago

    Great post – had no idea there was any such thing as writing lessons then, let alone that Maupaussant was taking them.

    First-time visitor, I’m going to have a look around.

    Thanks again.

  3. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi John, yes, it’s one of the hardest but most worthwhile endeavours – to look for the ‘unexplored element’, and keep looking till you’ve found it.

  4. John Baker 15 years ago

    Brilliant. Thanks for this, made my day.