Daydreaming, attitude & audience

Charles Allen Smart (1904–1967), author of eleven books of fiction, memoir, philosophy, and biography, was best known for RFD, his 1938 bestseller about returning to the land on his family’s ancestral farm. After his service in WW II, depicted in his memoir The Long Watch, he became writer in residence at Ohio University, the press of which returned RFD to print in 1998 under its Swallow imprint and with a new Foreword by Gene Logsdon. Smart’s thoughts, below, on the writing process, are from his address Letter to a Sunday Writer, posthumously published in 1969 by the Rowfant Club of Cleveland. The short book also includes some of his poetry and his commentary on the books and essays he published—and on those he completed but burned.

” [A]t the age of forty-seven, with incipient ulcers, and wife a wife, dog, and country place to support, I have become RFDorgimpressed by the extreme importance, certainly for any kind of writer, and probably for any kind of man, of sheer daydreaming. . . . My notion is that we should take care to keep on daydreaming vigorously throughout our lives, attempting only to make our daydreams less personal and more firmly rooted in the outer world than in ourselves as individuals. Good daydreaming requires a strong sense of the possibilities inherent in any situation, and is at least the forerunner of imagination.”

“[W]riting of any kind is . . .  a matter of attaining, somehow, a superior state of mind in relation to yourself, to the experience or object that interests you, and to your possible reader. . . . In relation to your possible reader—and this is especially important in all the forms of non-fiction—you have some idea of [the reader’s] mind and experience, and you have to have towards him an attitude of friendly respect, neither too chummy, like the newspaper columnists, nor too austere and pontifical, like T.S. Eliot’s.”

“If the attainment of some such attitude is the chief job in writing, how, then, does one attain it? . . . We must bungle, and bungle, and bungle again, watching ourselves and the world all the time; and every once in a while, perhaps for a few moments, perhaps even for months on end, we do attain some such state of mind. The ego falls away, so that hopeless, full of zest, curiosity, good humor and wonder, we find our minds roaming, becoming suddenly incandescent, and then settling down happily in an intense concentration that teems with invention and resource. If only while writing . . . we know that we are writing damned well.

“I can sometimes approach this state of mind . . . by revision of a job that is clearly bad. This is the chief value and hope of revision: not to tinker mechanically for better effects, but to get a fresh vision, a new tone. Another thing that I have learned is that there is more in my mind than I normally can believe possible, and that I have always to strive to reach ever deeper levels of concentration. . . . [T]hough beginning in the unconscious, [this] is completed only in extreme concentration. Another thing I have learned is that although my interest in something has to be intensely personal and even troubled in origin, it can’t remain so: it must move toward . . . serenity.”

“The final step, delivery in full to your reader, requires you to have an even clearer vision of that reader’s mind than you need for fiction. Your own vision of the material and your own vision of your reader will together, almost always, rather quickly and surely dictate the form required, and any listing of the ways to write an article, an essay, an address, a report, a travel book, or what-not, is academic and presumptuous. Depending on the writer and the reader . . . every piece of non-fiction has its own unique best form, which can be as artistic, and as satisfying in that way, as any piece of fiction.”

“During the last few years, in this academic world, I have heard my share of addresses, essays, and formal or informal lectures on many subjects, and all of these have impressed on me ever more deeply the fact that a job of writing or speaking is much less technical than intellectual and emotional. Most of these speakers have been passably literate, or even accomplished in a technical way, but very few of them thought and felt with the accuracy, force, and subtlety that any segment of reality demands, and that any good audience or reader has a right to expect. In non-fiction, the evils of our time are superficiality, pretentiousness, and many different kinds of jargon or gobbledygook that are used . . . to mask ignorance and feeble or dishonest thinking. . . . [I]n the long run, despite all the successful windbags, we can’t escape it: we have to educate and civilize ourselves.”

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2 Comments

Filed under audience, discovery, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, NOTED, revision

2 responses to “Daydreaming, attitude & audience

  1. Thank you for this. It is particularly helpful to me at this moment. Smart’s discussion of “watching ourselves and the world all the time” and how — if we’re lucky and continue to “bungle, and bungle, and bungle again,” we might find those incandescent moments every now and again.

    Here’s to vigorous daydreaming.

  2. Thanks, Beth. I really admire CAS as a writer and as a man. He was a political radical, a Depression-era Red, and a patriot. When WW II broke out, he could have gotten a farm deferment or, as a bestselling author and Harvard man, gone into the intelligence service. Instead, he enlisted as an apprentice seaman and served aboard a series of ships in the Pacific and during the Normandy invasion, eventually commanding his own vessel.

    His work, especially RFD and The Long Watch, captures his earnest, joyful attempt to live a meaningful life.