Legendary pulpster Arthur J. Burks penned a series of articles on writing for the pulp market in the 1930s for Writer’s Digest magazine, several of which were reprinted in John Locke’s Pulp Fictioneers: Adventures in the Storytelling Business (Adventure House, 2004). A prolific wordsmith (at least 4000 words per day, according to a New Yorker article entitled “Burks of the Pulps,” quoted on Duane Swierczynski’s Secret Dead Blog), Burks’ series of articles become increasingly dispirited as the decade wears on. The pressures of the market, and the mental and physical exhaustion of writing millions of words, certainly took their toll.
For my “On Words and Writing” series, I will feature some of Burks’ most insightful passages on both the life of a pulp writer during the 1930s, as well as his advice to writers (much of which is still applicable today). This first quote comes from “Quantity Production” (Writer’s Digest, June 1937). You can read the whole article either in Pulp Fictioneers, or online over at Pulp Rack. I think a lot of people can relate to Burks’ compulsion to write.
When I am not writing, or thinking about a story, there is no living with me. I pace the floor. My family gets out of my way or gets stepped on. My children get kicked across the room. My wife gets her head bitten off if she smiles and says: “How are you, darling?” If the telephone rings I bite the ear off the caller when I say hello. If the door slams I pull my hair and shriek. Traffic outside my window drives me nuts. Everything is wrong, nothing goes right. I hear every sound and it rasps my nerves like a rusty file drawn over a rusty rasp. Absence of sound is even more maddening. I hate my food and my drink. I hate everybody including myself. I won't do anything anybody wants me to do. I can't stay inside, I won't go out. I'm utterly and completely impossible, and the fact that this is so makes me worse than ever…
But when I'm writing, ah, there's the difference! I like to write, I have to write, or go mad. And the more I want to write the faster words tumble over themselves to get onto paper. I'm happy. I'm as interested in the outcome of my story as I dimly hope my readers will be—though right then I don't think about readers or editors or anybody else, except the matter of getting my story on paper. It burns inside me, trying to get out, and I'm happy when it's streaking across the pages at top speed. Editors say I'm careless: I'm not. I'm sold on my story to the exclusion of all else. My fingers won't keep up with my mind—and typographical errors therefore seem to prove to editors that they're right in calling me careless.
My fingers are simply not fast enough, because two of mine do the work of ten. I go do fast, am so burned up with my story that my brain goes right on while I'm changing paper in the machine, as a result of which I have to read back and put in the two or three words at the top-left of the page that I kept on writing in my head and didn't get down on paper.
Do I make myself clear?
-Arthur J. Burks, “Quantity Production” (Writer’s Digest, June 1937)