Benjamin Franklin attempted perfection with his virtues, but found greater wisdom in the journey that all writers can appreciate.
At the golden age of 78 Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography and now we have a telling and honest look into the life of a statesman, a humorist and an all-around great American.
We know Ben Franklin from his amazing satire such as “The Speech of Penny Baker”, a critique of infidelity fines of his day, and other well known pieces such as “Poor Richard’s Almanac”, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” and “Join, Or Die”. What most people don’t know is that he also wrote some quite controversial satire as well, namely his essay about foods consumed for their more aromatic after effects (“Fart Proudly”) or a letter he wrote to a young man entitled “Advice to a Young Man On Choosing a Mistress” (no really) in which he detailed eight reasons why elderly women were best for this choice.
He was indeed a colorful fellow.
Today’s writing lesson comes from the pages of the “Autobiography”, however. The passage itself isn’t about writing, but as a writer I take from it the wisdom it provides. The passage is found in the pages following Franklin’s description of his “virtues” which were thirteen morals by which a person could truly live a virtuous life. He created these virtues because he felt that the local church was insufficient since his pastor’s sermons were “dry, uninteresting and unedifying”. He decided against organized religion and made up his virtues. He then discusses how he would methodically try to master one per week until he had mastered them all. However, like all great endeavors, he failed to be consistent.
He then relates a story about his neighbor:
in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn'd, while the smith press'd the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. "No," said the smith, "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled." "Yes," says the man, "but I think I like a speckled ax best."
As a writer whose day-job is not writing, I work very hard to hone my craft at that grinding wheel, try my best to wile away the little time I have to write in perfecting my skill. I still have a long way to go and i’ve been writing since I was a boy. I used to become very bothered that I was not as perfect as I desired to be as a writer, but as Franklin said:
Such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.
I think it’s ok to be a little off your game. Recently I’ve been going through some very trying difficulties indeed. These difficulties have been very hard to stomach and many of them have kept me away from my writing desk (which is my laptop). Sure, I’m thinking about the stories I want to write all the time. I’m turning them over in my head, making notes on my phone, and hoping to get back to them later like today when I had some un-announced time to work.
My axe is very speckled. I think about all the writers who wrote during the Victorian era. Mostly the writers who wrote during that time were rich folks who had nothing better to do than sit around and write a book. However, even though we have mountains of books from that era, only precious few are remembered (Dickens, Eliot, Wilde). Everyone who was rich enough to enjoy a daily low tea was turning out novels. Like Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, she accidentally left the novel she wrote in the pram instead of the handbag. Just because people have all the time in the world to write doesn’t mean they are spending that time wisely. My axe is very speckled because those times I get to write are very precious and I’m not wasting them on social media or whining about not finding an agent.
I don’t have to hashtag about it, tweet about it, Instagram my progress. I’m quietly working away on a screenplay in hopes of getting selected to attend a festival in Austin, Texas. My axe is speckled, but it is very sharp. I hope to cut through all the competition.