Maugham sums it up Appreciation: A reporter finds the author's little book has a clear message for him.

January 24, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The book was a gift from a friend who knew better.

Ron Hayes was always a wiser writer and reader than I. Five years ago, he gave me W. Somerset Maugham's "The Summing Up." Inside the little book, Ron tucked a note that simply and clearly said: "Underline often." I ignored it. William Somerset Maugham meant nothing to me.

Maugham wrote "Of Human Bondage" and "The Razor's Edge" and I knew he was dead. (Wasn't Bill Murray in the movie "The Razor's Edge"?) But what could Maugham, a playwright and novelist, tell me about writing for newspapers?

I didn't know what I was missing until this year -- 60 years after "The Summing Up" was published. Long ago tossed aside, the book was recently discovered on a basement shelf, sandwiched between and trampled by big books from John Irving and William Least Heat Moon. My friend's advice was still there: Underline often.

Finally, I'm following Ron's advice and am defacing Maugham's work of art about the art of writing. It's not some quickie book on how to write or how to get published. Know that Maugham was considered one of the great cultured minds of the century. But in "The Summing Up," this well-schooled and well-traveled writer communicated simply and clearly to writers and readers alike.

"People often write obscurely," Maugham wrote. "The writer has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write."

Think before we write. The concept is so simple it's elusive. Moreover, "simplicity is not such an obvious merit as lucidity," Maugham continued. Words just strung together "fall on the ear like music and the beauty of the sound leads you easily to conclude that you need not bother about the meaning.

"But words are tyrannical things, they exist for their meanings."

Too often I've fallen for the sound of my words and the words of others. Isn't it enough to create good music? Good music, however, is not good writing. We're not playing pianos here; we're playing computers. It's reassuring for the writer (or baseball or piano player) who fancies himself naturally talented to know Maugham made the same rookie mistake.

"To write was an instinct that seemed as natural to me as to breathe," he wrote. "I did not stop to consider if I wrote well or badly. It was not till some years later that it dawned upon me that it was a delicate art that must be painfully acquired."

Although Maugham never did time at a newspaper, he valued journalism for its street smarts. "For the newspaper offers us a part of experience that we writers cannot afford to miss. It is raw material and we are stupid if we turn up our noses because it smells of blood and sweat."

Yet Maugham -- a renowned British playwright -- also knew journalism had its limits and liabilities. Indirectly, Maugham argued for a variety of voices and styles in a newspaper. "The journalism of a period has very much the same style; it might have all been written by the same hand; it is impersonal." Read other stuff by all means, he seems to say.

I continue to underline often in "The Summing Up." I had gone looking for help in my writing and tripped over this book. It was an accident wanting to happen -- like accidentally learning shortly after that tomorrow is Maugham's birthday; he would be 124. One can never be too smart to recognize a sign from time to time.

So, fellow writers and readers, to sum up:

Maugham on a writer's true motivation: "The artist produces for the liberation of his soul. The reader of a book [or newspaper article] is not concerned with the artist's feelings." (I can stop waiting for people to say, "Why, Rob, what a thoughtful, simple, and clear portrayal of my very being.")

On picking your subjects: "The ordinary is the writer's richer field. Its unexpectedness, its singularity, its infinite variety afford unending material. The great man is too often all of a piece; it is the little man that is a bundle of contradictory elements."

On passing judgment: "There is nothing more beautiful than goodness. I am touched when I see the goodness of the wicked, and I am willing enough to shrug a tolerant shoulder at their wickedness. I am not my brother's keeper. I cannot bring myself to judge my fellows; I am content to observe them."

A modern word of caution: "It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and then they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved; they do not understand that what interests you is the way in which you have created the illusion." (OK, so I had to read that one twice.)

Maugham on celebrities: "The celebrated develop a technique to deal with the persons they come across. They show the world a mask, often an impressive one but you are stupid if you think that this public performance of theirs corresponds with the man within." (How stupid? Let me count the stories.)

Right on, brother: "The only important thing in a book is the meaning it has for you."

Ditto: "The writer can only be fertile if he renews himself."

On making the best use of his life: "It is the craving within me, which is in every man, to persevere in my own being. It is the very essence of man. Its satisfaction is self-satisfaction." A simple thought that sounds good, too.

Thanks, and happy birthday, Mr. Maugham, wherever you are.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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