Is it better to be a prolific writer or a master of the craft?
I found myself wondering this over the New Year break after my partner and I started watching The Crown.
In one memorable scene, Winston Churchill poses for an artist, Graham Sutherland, who has been commissioned to paint his portrait.
Churchill asks Sutherland’s wife, Kathleen Barry, who is assisting her husband that particular day, how many paintings Sutherland completed last year.
‘Three or four,’ she answers.
Churchill’s bombing voice replied, ‘Ask how many paintings I completed last year.’
Barry guesses, ten, then fifteen.
‘Sixty,’ Churchill replies. After a beat, he adds, with false modesty, that he is not a master artist like her husband.
Given Churchill’s busy political career (at the time of the commissioned portrait, he was eighty years old and Prime Minister of Britain), it is impressive that he completed sixty original paintings.
If we are to understand this fictional Churchill’s definition of artistry, creators fall into two camps: those who are masters, and those who are prolific.
A master, here at least, has a fine attention to deal, they are willing to invest a great deal of time and energy into a single work to ensure it is the very best that they can make it.
In this particular episode, for example, we see Graham taking many photographs of Churchill to use for reference so that he might practise drawing Churchill’s eyes and hands before completing the final portrait which he will paint ‘live’.
The temptation to fall into binary opposites here is high. If a master produces their art slowly and carefully, then a prolific artist must be someone who works quickly and recklessly, right?
It’s hardly that simple.
Please note, don’t read too much into the terms ‘master’ and ‘prolific’. These terms are not mutually exclusive (I believe it is possible to be prolific and a master) and highly subjective (what skills define someone as a ‘master’? How many works make someone ‘prolific’?)
While Churchill was a ‘hobby’ artists (meaning that he didn’t make his sole living from painting, nor did he want to: politics was his number one passion and painting was simply for pleasure), his works have gone on to be published in several books and in 1948 he was made Honorary Academician Extraordinary by the Royal Academy of Arts.
However, his art was not always well received, unlike his portraitist, Sutherland.
So, this got me thinking about the different ways that artist’s work.
Some relish a slow meticulous approach: they enjoy going deep into a singular work and spending a great deal of time thinking about what they want to do, but also what that work could become.
Another artist may find greater joy in the starting of new projects, in following their instincts as they move through the process, maybe focussing more on the big picture, and less on the small details.
Now, this is a writing blog and we all know the names of authors that fall into both of these camps.
Until recently*, Harper Lee had only ever published one novel, but what a novel. Few writers experience the phenomenon of producing a work so widely read and loved; a work with legacy, and capital i Importance.
Other famous novelists that have only written one book include, Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), and Oscar Wilde (Picture of Dorian Grey). Though admittedly, while Wilde only published one book, he did publish many poems and plays.
On the other end of the scale, we have the prolific writers; writers who’s back catalogues can fill entire bookshelves (or two!).
Historian estimate that Charles Hamilton wrote around 100 million words. Most were published as short stories, but if you were to divide those words into novel-length, then old Charles published 1, 200 books during his life-time.
Barbara Cartland wrote 720 romance novels during her career.
Beloved science fiction writer, Issac Asimov, published over 500 works.
Stephen King doesn’t have the same outrageous numbers mentioned above, but he is often included in these types of lists, because, you know, he’s Stephen King. To date, King has written 83 novels and roughly 200 short stories.
So much of whether you fall into the ‘master’ camp or the ‘prolific’ camp comes down to process. And you know, probably a hundred other things.
If you are the type of writer who likes to work slowly and deeply through each ‘season’ of writing–researching, drafting, revision, and publication–then perhaps you fit more comfortably into the master camp.
If you are the type of writer who has thirty novel outlines on your computer, you may be described as prolific.
If you enjoy finding out what the average Victorian-era maid ate for breakfast or what material police uniforms are made out of, you may be a master: a writer driven by detail.
If you find yourself thinking of your novel constantly, stealing snatches of time to write, mostly because you want to find out what happens next, then you may be prolific.
It’s a fun thought experiment to consider which of these two camps you fall into, yet both these labels are arbitrary and exterior. They are descriptions that come from outside the writer (or artist) not within.
A person who shows up most days to confront the blank page (or to edit a full one); someone who is doing their best to communicate ideas clearly, and to tell stories that reflect to the reader the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that they’ve been unable to express or that they’ve never had.
Each writer’s method is unique, not only to themselves but also each project. The one factor that ties prolific writers and master together is time, for neither of these achievements can be reached without it.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. What do you think of the idea of prolific writers and masters? Do you think such labels are important, something you’d like to strive for, or do you use writers described in such ways as sources of inspiration? Leave your comments below and tell me all about it.
*This is arguable as Go Tell the Watchman is an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
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