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Literary Legends

What's old in writing advice seems new again, as one writer discovered on his trip back in time through the Writer's Digest archives.

In December 1964, Edward Stafford provided Writer's Digest with an interview conducted with Ernest Hemingway shortly before the author's death in 1961. It's excerpted here for the first time in more than 40 years. Please note that the excerpt has been abridged due to space considerations:
In September 1961, the editors of Writer's Digest asked a handful of the world's greatest writers the following question: "What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?" Their answers follow:

As a book lover, I've always taken great pleasure in stumbling across some new release in my local bookstore; one that I didn't expect to find, hadn't heard about through friends or The New York Times Book Review. Those hidden treasures that can be found only by religious devotion to a regular bookstore haunt are exactly that—treasures. Fortunately, they pop up often enough to keep me happy.

What I'm often in the mood for, however, are books I haven't read by the great authors of the early- and mid-20th century. But it often feels like, if it's been published, I've already read it. I'll never again come across a new piece by James Hilton, Jack Kerouac or W. Somerset Maugham. I would imagine that you, as a lover of good writing, sometimes feel the same, though the writers you miss may differ from my own. It's this yearning that led to the literary adventure that follows.


In September 2005, Random House published The Complete New Yorker. The package consisted of a "best of" book and eight CD-ROMs that included the full contents of every weekly issue of The New Yorker ever published—more than 4,000 issues in all, dating back to 1925. Most of these stories, articles and essays hadn't seen the light of day in decades. But there they were; accessible with just a few key strokes.

That collection got me thinking about Writer's Digest. I've worked for the magazine's parent company, F+W Publications, for nine years. But even before that, I was a fan and admirer. What hidden treasures, I wondered, might be locked away in the Writer's Digest vaults?

The magazine's history is a long one, as then-publisher Richard Rosenthal told it in his 1970 article "How Writer's Digest Began":

Ed Rosenthal [Richard's grandfather] "wanted to publish a magazine that would take the writer out of the garret and into the marketplace where the demand for his wares had never been greater. He wanted to show aspiring writers how to write for this new hungry market and then how to sell to that market. He called his new publication Successful Writing and boldly asked 25? a copy from the buyer. He sold 1,400 copies of that December 1920 issue—enough copies to rush the second copy into print—and a third before he decided to change the title to Writer's Digest."

December 1920! As F+W has been publishing the magazine on an uninterrupted basis for more than 85 years, the archives are considerable. It occurred to me that any number of fantastic authors might have contributed to the magazine over that period. Certainly in the most recent publication era, the magazine has featured at least one highly respected and/or bestselling author per issue, as either a contributor or interview subject; very often there might be two or three. I wondered what intriguing Writer's Digest articles, interviews or essays might exist from decades past that had long been forgotten.

After mulling over the possibilities, I drove to the office. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon, late in October 2005. The building was quiet, the lights dim. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the lunchroom's automated dispenser and went to the third-floor library where the archives are housed.

For the remainder of the weekend, I went through every issue, page by page—more than 1,000 issues in all. You might think that would be tedious, but frankly, it was a joy. I wasn't going through microfilms, gazing at a screen for hours on end. Nor was I perusing pristine reproductions. I was looking through volume after volume of the original magazines, bound up in hardcover by decade. In many cases, the paper was yellowed and crumbling, particularly the earlier issues. Sometimes, the dust became so thick, I had to take a break just to wash it off of my hands and face. To call it one of the best weekends of my life may sound dubious, but I expect that your feelings about getting knee-deep in literary history are similar to my own. You are reading "The Digest," after all (as the magazine was referred to by fans in the 1930s and 1940s). I went home to eat, sleep and shower, then returned early Sunday morning to continue my review of the archives.

It's clear that I was obsessed. What kept me going was that every few issues, I'd be stunned by some new discovery. While flipping through the February 1932 issue, for example, I found an article by H.G. Wells titled "The Future of the Novel."

Yes, H.G. Wells wrote a piece for Writer's Digest! As did Edgar Rice Burroughs; several pieces, in fact. In May 1986, Isaac Asimov echoed Wells, his literary ancestor, with an article titled "Your Future as a Writer." And in the 1922 volume, I stumbled upon something by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. Did you know he also wrote the highly regarded murder novel The Red House Mystery? And in March 1921, Writer's Digest announced the arrival of hot "new" writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. For me, these were extraordinary discoveries.

At midnight on Sunday evening, I looked down at the list of names I'd compiled and was stunned to see contributions from most of the people who shaped American literature throughout the 20th century. A final interview with Ian Fleming. Another interview with Truman Capote, conducted the year before he wrote In Cold Blood. An essay by L. Ron Hubbard, written at a time when he was known as just a pulp fiction writer. An interview with Kurt Vonnegut, conducted a year after his suicide attempt. And an instructional piece written by 23-year-old Dean Koontz.

There was a spirited debate between pulp fiction king H. Bedford-Jones and Dashiell Hammett about the use of sex scenes in fiction—conducted through several essays published from October 1923 through June 1924. And another in 1970, by Eudora Welty and Norman Cousins focusing on a writer's social responsibilities. There were pieces featuring creators we don't normally associate with literary achievements, including Steve Allen (1957), Hugh Hefner (1964), Spider-Man creator Stan Lee (1947) and "The Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling (1955). I even found a note of appreciation from the editor thanking Josef Stalin for his order of one copy of Writer's Market (1952).

But more than all of the big names and bestselling authors, Writer's Digest provided a chronicle of the writer's life throughout the major events of the 20th century. An article on writing for films, for example, written prior to the advent of talking pictures. I found issuances from the U.S. Government that provided writers with guidelines for using their talents to help combat the enemy and support the troops during World War II. Articles on censorship (covering both sides of the issue), women writers in the 1920s and much more. These historical documents are perhaps even more absorbing than the high-profile author pieces, illustrating how writers influenced the culture over the years and were, in turn, influenced by it. That is, after all, the true legacy of Writer's Digest—as a record chronicling the evolution of the craft and those who practiced it.

The Digest also showed that writers belie the stereotype society commonly tags them with. The rest of the world doesn't really seem to get us, working off of the assumption that we're all introverts and loners. Perhaps withdrawn. At the very least, eccentric. But while many of us may be quiet, watching and absorbing, cultivating grist for the story mill, in general, we do want to talk. To share our victories and defeats; our tricks of the trade and dirty little secrets. If we're loners, we're the most communal loners on the planet. And for more than 85 years, Writer's Digest has provided a forum for our voices.

In the book Legends of Literature, I've tried to showcase many of the best, most interesting and historically important pieces from Writer's Digest's past. I've even included some reader letters and classified ads. We're all contributors, you see. Some of the pieces that didn't make the final cut include essays by or interviews with Darryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox film producer in 1944), William M. Gaines (publisher of Mad magazine), George A. Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead) and Sylvester Stallone (keep in mind, he was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1977). There were hundreds of others, of course, but these few show the range of what The Digest has covered. Legends of Literature is simply the tip of the iceberg. I hope that the book will enlighten and satisfy lovers of great writers and great writing, and in some small way convey the joy of the quiet October weekend that marked the beginnings of my investigation.

And 85 years from now, I trust that The Digest will still be paving the way for writers—helping them connect, share their thoughts, master their craft, get published and shape the world.

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