William Campbell Gault on Words and Writing

William Campbell Gault’s “One Foot Out of the Grave” was published by Writer’s Digest in May 1956 (Vol. 36, No. 6). Frankly, it’s depressing as hell to read. Maybe "realistic" is a better description, as it doesn't entertain any fantasies about the writing life. It’s a short memoir written in the uncommon second-person style, meaning that he is always addressing “you” even though he is discussing his own career. The conflation of himself and his readers seems significant for a number of reasons. Primarily, it makes us relate to Gault all the more – as though his story could be our story. Also, Gault seems to be giving the advice that he wishes someone would have given him as a beginner, though he seems skeptical as to whether or not he would have ever listened to such disparaging wisdom.

You can be working in a shoe factory in the middle of a great depression and not be happy. You should be happy to be working at all, but not you; you think you could be a WRITER.

Gault goes through his myriad experiences, beginning with winning a short story competition that launched the seeds of a career that slowly went nowhere for almost a decade. His goal of being the next Hemingway continually lowered until he was willing to write whatever would sell. Mysteries sold for a while, but then the pulps stopped buying. So he tried Science Fiction, but wasn’t comfortable with the genre. Juvenile sports stories, however, always sold well. His first mystery novel, Don’t Cry for Me, was rejected by everyone, but finally was picked up and even won an Edgar. Gault’s reaction? “You think you are big now, but you are nothing.”

If anything, what is so surprising about this article is its discouraging, embittered tone. The “you” in the article never gives up – but it seems that Gault wonders why anyone would continue through such hardship, disappointment, and failure. Even success for Gault is tinged with the knowledge that it not everlasting, nor assured to ever happen again.

Still, Gault ends on a slightly upbeat note (comparatively speaking). I will quote the final four paragraphs of the article in whole as they are not only the most encouraging passages of the article, but I think it’s the closest Gault comes to explaining what kept him going through all the hard years.

Remember this, if you have written a couple dozen short stories and sold them to national markets, the chances are you know as much about the business as many of the editors you are trying to sell to. You are going to have to write what they want, but always be sure the paths they want you to take are reasonable. The chances are they know what is salable and they must be listened to. But only you can determine what is distinctly yours and that is your road to the ultimate success. Editors come and go constantly and the next man may love what the last man despised.

It’s all taste and opinion and one man is different from the next. Mr. Faulkner might not appreciate Mr. Spillane, but that is also true in reverse.

None of this need concern you. Out there, beyond the lighted limits of the place you sit and type, somebody is waiting for the kind of thing you write. Writing can never be more than communication and should never be less.

So what do you do? You keep typing.


  1. Definitely sounds like a realist. I've pretty much given up on making it big as a writer. I want to get as much done as I can and get it out there and hope that people enjoy it. I've tried quitting writing a time or two but I can't stay away. I just love stories and can't keep from telling them to anyone who might conceivable listen.

  2. This is a great bit of wisdom, and very inspirational.

  3. I think we've all been bitten by the same bug, Charles. Writing - in any form - is something I always have to be working on. Can't imagine not having something in the works.

  4. I enjoyed Mr. Gault's informed take but comments like his and others always leaves me wondering. Does anybody just write because they enjoy it or is there always the $ at the end? If a crystal ball could be given to reveal that you would never make a dime off writing would you keep at it? And I wonder how many greats we would have lost?

  5. What a rambling idiot I am. That last sentence makes no sense but after traveling all day I should just say good post Cullen and leave well enough alone.

  6. You raise a very good point, David. The writing market when he was writing is very different from the one that exists today, which is worth taking into account. That's why I picked these last paragraphs to quote, as the others dealt specifically with Gault's experiences with the pulp market and selling trends.

    In the end, I think the last eight words say it all: "So what do you do? You keep typing. "


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